Indigenous Peoples: Pressing for Greater Rights

UN Chronicle, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Indigenous Peoples: Pressing for Greater Rights


Brutally forced off their ancestral lands in many instances, faced with discrimination and poverty, and often afforded little say in their political futures, indigenous peoples worldwide are increasingly seeking to exercise their full range of human rights.

As the world community grapples with how best to reconcile their demands for self-determination with the sovereignty of nation States, there is growing recognition of the need for new international standards to safeguard the lifestyles and cultures of indigenous peoples.

It is no surprise, therefore, that indigenous peoples have a place on the agenda of the World Conference on Human Rights this June, spurred in part by the decision of the General Assembly to proclaim 1993 as the International Year of the World's Indigenous People.

"The way indigenous people are treated by States and the international community will be a major test of the seriousness of our commitment to a genuinely universal human rights regime", Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali noted at the ceremony to open the International Year.

"If we are serious about development, political participation and human rights, we must address the special situation of indigenous people."

To further these goals, the Secretary-General named Rigoberta Menchu as Goodwill Ambassador for the Year. Ms. Menchu, a Quiche activist from Guatemala, was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

An estimated 300 million persons in 70 countries from Australia to the Arctic are considered to be indigenous. More than half live in China and India, some 10 million in Myanmar (Burma) and 30 million in South America. While the situations and histories of these peoples vary considerably, common problems include the loss or degradation of native lands due to colonization or development and the threat of involuntary assimilation into the dominant cultures that surround them.

Despite such hardships, indigenous peoples have battled to keep control of their cultural identities and lands and maintain their unique closeness to the natural environment. But as economic and population growth have transformed the landscape, the indigenous have frequently been the most directly affected by deforestation, mining, hydroelectric projects and toxic waste disposal, for instance.

Until recently, international action to protect the human rights of indigenous peoples has been limited. In 1953, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) completed a study that led to the adoption in 1957 of Convention No. 107 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. …

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