Special Events

9 August

The Day Drawing Attention to Indigenous Cultures & Rights

The United Nation General Assembly on 23 December 1994 designated 9 August to be observed as the "International Day of the World's Indigenous People" every year during the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (Resolution 49/214). The date marks the day of the first meeting in 1982 of the Working Group of Indigenous Populations of the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Commission on Human Rights. First observed in 1995, its commemoration offers the world community an opportunity to reiterate the principles of respect for human rights enshrined in the Charter and to find solutions to alleviate the plight of indigenous people.

1993 ----- The Year Seeking New Partnership

Recognising the need for a new approach to the issue of indigenous peoples, the United Nation General Assembly on 18 December 1990 proclaimed 1993 the "International Year of the World's Indigenous People" (Resolution 45/164). Under the theme "Indigenous People - A New Partnership", the Year aimed to develop a new and equitable relationship between the international community, States and indigenous peoples based on the participation of indigenous people in the planning, implementation and evaluation of projects affecting their living conditions and future.

1995-2004 ----- The Decade Affirming Commitment

Following a recommendation by the second World Conference on Human Rights (June 1993), where States were called to "take concerted positive steps to ensure respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, on the basis of equality and non-discrimination, and recognise the value and diversity of their distinct identities, cultures and social organisation", the General Assembly on 21 December 1993 proclaimed 1995-2004 the "International Decade of the World's Indigenous People" (Resolution 48/163). The theme, "Indigenous People: Partnership in Action" goes with the objective of strengthening international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health. The Decade constitutes a time-frame for the United Nations system, Governments, non-governmental organizations and others to commit themselves to the promotion and protection of the human rights of indigenous people, as well as to give priority to the new role of indigenous people as decision makers and beneficiaries of national, regional and international activities.

Sources: Untied Nations

Who are the Indigenous Peoples?

There is no official definition on Indigenous Peoples, and actually, definitions developed in the past carry flaws or create confusions.

The generally accepted descriptions on Indigenous Peoples may give you the basic ideas about who they are:

  • The First People
    Indigenous Peoples refer to the first to settle in the country, with other names such as aborigines.
  • Cultural Difference
    In Africa and Asia where processes of conquests and colonial structures took place, indigenous peoples refer to groups that clearly distinguish themselves in a socio-cultural context from the surrounding population. They are characterised by a common culture and language, common spiritual ideas, an identifiable territory and a certain economic structure.
1972: Working Definition

A definition developed by Mr. José Martinez Cobo, Special Rapporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, was accepted by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (Sanders 1989):

"Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a state structure which incorporates mainly national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant."

Flaws Created:

  1. The definition freezes the identity of indigenous peoples in a historical-chronological axis
    By identifying indigenous peoples with those who 'inhabited' an area before it was conquered or colonised by 'people from other parts of the world', it has limited the applicability of this definition mainly to pre-colonial populations. It refers to only 500 years of European colonialism while ignores the history of non-European civilisations.
  2. The definition on the indigenous culture, customs, religion, society and history is too simplistic
    The survival of the indigenous identity is explained by its isolation on the one hand and its marginalisation and discrimination on the other. It treats the indigenous peoples in terms of an ‘ethnographic present', as if the thousands of years of human history and interactions had never substantially altered the cultures of different peoples.
  3. The definition fails to explain the phenomena of survival of the 'indigenous' identity in the face of adversity
    Ethnic identities have also survived. But not all ethnic communities have lived in isolation. Many ethnic communities have completely lost control over their 'homeland' or the terrain which was the cradle of their culture. Yet their identities have survived. What then are the differences between the ethnic groups and the indigenous peoples?

1983: More Inclusive

Realising that Mr. Cobo's original definition was not adequate to cover the isolated and marginal tribal populations of the Asian continent, the scope and the ambit of the 'working definition' was enlarged. It was decided that all those marginal and isolated groups existing in many countries who may not have suffered conquest or direct colonisation might be considered as indigenous peoples if they fulfilled the following criteria:

(a) they are the descendants of groups, which were in the territory at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origin arrived there
(b) precisely because of their isolation from other segments of the country's population they have almost preserved intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterised as indigenous
(c) they are, even if only formally, placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own
(FICN. 41Sub.211983121 Adds. para. 3 79)

1986: Self-identification

It was added that any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add.4. para.381). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.

The draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of the indigenous Peoples prepared by the Working Group does not include a definition of indigenous peoples or populations. This omission has been justified by the Chairperson - Rapporteur of the Working Group Ms. Erica Irene Daes - on the ground that "historically, indigenous peoples have suffered, from definitions imposed by others" and as a result, in certain countries many indigenous peoples have been declassified.
(E/ CN.4/Stib.2/AC.4/1995/3, page 3).

Excerpt from "Definition and Delimitation of the Indigenous Peoples of Asia", by Tapan Bose.

Sources: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs

How Indigenous Peoples Became A Disadvantaged Group?

Despite their diversity, indigenous peoples are facing similar problems. They are among the most disadvantaged groups on Earth. They are subjected to slavery and forced labour. They face discrimination, poverty, poor health, unemployment and high rates of imprisonment.

Examples in
India -
SUA020605(8) / UA010303(3)
Philippines -

During the period of European colonial expansion, many indigenous peoples were wiped out and their land taken by force. They experienced massacres, forced relocations, removal of their children and other forms of assimilation. In Asia and Africa, artificial colonial borders have separated peoples or turned them into powerless minorities.

Indigenous communities are threatened by destruction of the natural basis of existence of their culture. Under the name of development, their land and resources are expropriated or spoiled by activities such as deforestation, mining, dam and irrigation projects, road construction, toxic waste dumping and nuclear testing.

Cultural Extinction/Ethnocide
Many indigenous communities experienced forced assimilation by prohibition of mother tongue, religion and cultural ways of expression, and denial of the existence of whole peoples in the public life of a state. This process normally happens gradually and unnoticed by the public.

Indigenous peoples are those who are not in power in modern national states. With a different way of life, they are perceived by the dominant society as being inferior. They normally are not represented by the decision-making elite in their respective national state. In addition, indigenous communities are increasingly marginalized by the population surrounding them, causing the concept of "indigenous peoples" to become a political term.

International Ignorance
Around the world, indigenous peoples have struggled to gain control over their land and lives and recognition of their rights. The concerns of indigenous peoples were not addressed as a concern of the international community until the 1970s. In 1982, the UN established a Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP).

The Fourth World

This "World" comprises those peoples that strive for autonomy and international recognition. The indigenous people had been victims of invasions, conquests and robbery, and it is their right to claim back their lost rights. While they are aware of their original sovereignty, they also know about their mutual relationship through the "We-feeling" that is firmly established in their consciousness. Nothing seems more natural to indigenous peoples than to go their own self-determined way, independent of the context of the national state surrounding them. They want to be referred to as independent peoples in order to obtain the right to self-determination, or at least to strive for partial autonomy.

Diplomacy Training Program
Margareta Weisser Foundation for Indigenous People in Asia

Links To Related United Nations' Sites:

United Nations

UN Development Programme

International Labour Organisation

UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation

World Intellectual Property Organisation

World Bank

Non-Government Organisations Working for Indigenous Peoples' Rights:

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs
aims at defending and endorsing the rights of indigenous peoples in concurrence with their own efforts and desires. It works for giving indigenous peoples the possibility of organising themselves and opening up channels for indigenous peoples' own organisations to claim their rights. Its publications - a yearbook named The Indigenous World, a quarterly journal named Indigenous Affairs, and some thematic books, provides comprensive information on Indigenous issues.

Margareta Weisser Foundation for Indigenous People in Asia
is committed to maintaining the cultural variety on our planet with the aim of supporting indigenous peoples in Asia in their struggle for physical and cultural survival.

Indigenous Knowledge Page
is the sharing of information among the various stakeholders in development and to contribute to the challenge of knowledge for development, which is to combine indigenous (local) knowledge with similar experiences from around the world, and with elements from the world of science and technology.

Indigenous Peoples and Community Development
is a unit of the Inter-American Development Bank focuses on issues of poverty reduction and social equity as they affect indigenous populations. Other areas of concern are community consultation and participation, involuntary resettlement, and sociocultural soundness issues in general.

Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Information Network
is a mechanism to exchange information about experiences and projects and to increase collaboration among indigenous groups working on common causes related to biodiversity use and conservation.

Researching Indigenous Peoples Rights Under International Law

The World Wide Web Virtual Library: Indigenous Studies


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