Indigenous and tribal peoples

Revised ILO MNE Declaration will help promote indigenous peoples’ rights

Positive engagement by businesses with indigenous and tribal peoples in line with the MNE Declaration could lead to stronger relationships, less conflict and new opportunities in ensuring inclusive and sustainable development for all.

Comment | 31 March 2017
By Martin Oelz, ILO Senior Specialist on Equality and Non-Discrimination

For the first time, the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) was included in the revised Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration) adopted by the ILO Governing Body in March 2017. Its inclusion highlights the relevance of the MNE Declaration for governments, social partners, multinational and national enterprises in addressing indigenous peoples’ issues in their policies, strategies and practices. Indigenous and tribal peoples constitute about 5 per cent of the world’s population, or nearly 370 million people spread across over 70 countries.

Indigenous and tribal peoples – accounting for almost 15 per cent of the world’s poor – are uniquely vulnerable to discrimination and exclusion. They face specific difficulties in accessing quality education, decent work opportunities, support for income generating activities, and social protection. They are also among the most affected by the impacts of climate change and land dispossession.

Convention No. 169 is the only international treaty open for ratification specifically dedicated to indigenous peoples’ rights, currently ratified by 22 countries, including 14 in Latin America. It is based on the recognition of the aspirations of indigenous and tribal peoples around the world to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the States in which they live. Emphasizing the principles of equality, consultation, participation and cooperation, the Convention is a framework for participatory democracy, social peace and sustainable development.

The MNE Declaration is the only global instrument adopted in a tripartite manner by governments, employers and workers from around the world that aims to encourage the positive contribution of business to socio-economic development and the global goal of decent work, and to mitigate and resolve possible negative impacts of business activities. The revised MNE Declaration responds to new economic realities and developments since its last update in 2006. It was strengthened through new principles addressing specific decent work priorities such as equality of opportunity and treatment, forced labour, transition from the informal to the formal economy, social security, occupational safety and health and industrial relations. The MNE Declaration’s principles build on specific ILO Declarations, standards, guidelines and codes of practice relevant to the Tripartite Declaration, including Convention No. 169.

The revised MNE Declaration provides clear guidance and a framework for companies on how they can contribute through their operations to decent work. It also calls upon multinational enterprises, as part of their corporate responsibility, to respect human rights, to act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and to gauge human rights risks by assessing adverse human rights impacts through their activities or business relationships. It stipulates that this process should involve meaningful consultations with potentially affected groups.

The inclusion of Convention No. 169 in the revised MNE Declaration highlights that companies have a direct interest in acting in accordance with the principles of the Convention, including in the context of their human rights due diligence efforts. Such efforts will help to ensure legitimacy, partnerships and sustainability.

Positive engagement with indigenous peoples in line with the MNE Declaration’s employment promotion and equality principles can bring a range of benefits, including stronger relationships with communities resulting in fewer conflicts, stronger government relationships, reputational benefits, employee engagement and the ability to partner with and learn from indigenous people’s unique contributions and knowledge.

According to Convention No. 169 it is the responsibility of the State to consult with indigenous peoples regarding legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly. However, a key challenge continues to be the lack of strong mechanisms for such consultations, and the absence of regulatory and public policy environments which are conducive to both economic activities and the rights and interests of indigenous peoples. The inclusion of Convention No. 169 in the MNE Declaration’s list of relevant international labour standards provides additional leverage for governments, enterprises, employers’ and workers’ organizations, and indigenous and tribal peoples to come together to address these issues and to examine the establishment of mechanisms and procedures for consultations as envisaged in the Convention.

It thus provides in countries with indigenous and tribal peoples enhanced opportunities for inclusive growth and local economic development through appropriate laws and policies, responsible company practices and effective dialogue mechanisms.