United Nations Special Rapporteur José Martinez Cobo defined Indigenous Peoples as “those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them.” By avoiding invasion and colonization by larger countries and powers, these communities have continued to grow and live off the same land their people have inhabited for generations. Although Indigenous Peoples constitute five percent of the world’s population—370 million people according to the World Bank—they make up about 15 percent of all people experiencing poverty globally. Indigenous Peoples’ relatively small population size severely limits their political power, allowing national governments to exploit land that Indigenous People have occupied for decades. Unless the government formally recognizes that an Indigenous People legally owns a particular plot of land, governments can encroach on Indigenous Peoples’ long-inhabited lands and interfere with their way of life, threatening their economic viability and human rights.
According to a September 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, governments around the world are increasingly repressing activists who protest for Indigenous Peoples’ rights, frequently through legal persecution and violence. Since 2014, governments have increasingly curbed indigenous communities’ right to protest in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines.
The UN has already taken steps to secure rights for Indigenous Peoples. In 1982, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Working Group on Indigenous Populations to protect Indigenous Peoples and their rights. Nearly two decades later, ECOSOC established the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) to advise it on how to best address issues that Indigenous Peoples face worldwide. In 2007, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees Indigenous Peoples the right “to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions.”
Although the UN has extended numerous rights to Indigenous Peoples, governments continue to violate these rights effectively with impunity. As such, methods of better enforcing existing international agreements must be found. Furthermore, as new issues affecting indigenous communities continue to arise across the globe, this body must address how to continue protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples, acknowledging existing UN efforts and recommending new ways forward.