The Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Their Fight for Self-Determination

By Peang-Meth, Abdulgaffar | World Affairs, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Their Fight for Self-Determination


Peang-Meth, Abdulgaffar, World Affairs


An estimated three hundred million (1) of the world's six billion people are indigenous peoples who live in more than eighty-five countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania. (2) Each has its own language, culture, and belief system distinct from those of other indigenous peoples and the dominant people of the countries in which they live. Within the 189 sovereign independent states that are members of the United Nations, and a few more that are not members, there are more than six hundred language groups and five thousand ethnic groups that include indigenous peoples. According to Amnesty International, however, they "still face discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives and many are targeted for other grave human rights abuses." (3)

Industrialization and the exploitation of resources have benefited some ethnic groups, dominant and nondominant, and harmed others, but it is the indigenous peoples who are generally disadvantaged in societies. Their lands, their forests, their resources have been incorporated in schemes of economic activity and in the name of development. Some ethnic groups are nearly forgotten; others emerge belatedly to demand that their rights be respected. An international movement has evolved to demand the right of self-determination on behalf of indigenous peoples. Who are indigenous peoples, what are their rights, and what is self-determination? There are no simple answers to those questions.

The United Nations was created in 1945 to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and to "reaffirm faith in the fundamental human rights" (preamble), among other goals. Its primary purposes are to "maintain international peace and security" (Article 1.1) and to "develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples" (Article 1.2). (4) Unfortunately, the UN never defined precisely what it meant by the principle of self-determination of peoples. To the contrary, the United Nations is built on the principle of "the sovereign equality" of all nation-states. (5) International law and principles have viewed the territorial integrity of states as sacred.

In 1982, the United Nations Economic and Social Council, a principal organ of the UN whose functions include promoting respect for observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all (Article 62.2), instituted the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Composed of independent human rights experts, the working group held its first annual session in August 1982 with only about thirty participants. By the 1990s the number of participants reached nearly a thousand delegates, representatives of governments, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, and indigenous peoples.

Issues related to indigenous peoples have gained in importance and visibility. The year 1993 was proclaimed the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. In that year, the working group completed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, composed of forty-five draft articles. (6) It also proclaimed the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People for the years 1995-2004. The UN Commission on Human Rights, which has authority to discuss human rights anywhere in the world, also created its own working group to examine the draft declaration before forwarding it to the UN General Assembly for debate and adoption.

Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reads, "Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." (7) The statement on the "right of self-determination" was taken from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (8) adopted by the General Assembly in 1966 and put into force in 1976; and from the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (9) by the General Assembly. …

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