The ILO was established in 1919 at the end of the First World War to address social peace. This is reflected in its Constitution, which states that “there can be no lasting peace without social justice”.
Initially, the ILO was concerned with the situation of indigenous and tribal peoples primarily in their role as workers. As early as 1921, the ILO began to address the situation of so-called “native workers” in the overseas colonies of European powers. Increasingly, it became evident that indigenous peoples were exposed to severe labour exploitation and had a need for special protection in cases where they were expelled from their ancestral domains and became seasonal, migrant, bonded or home-based labourers. One of the outcomes of this recognition was the adoption in 1930 of the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention (No. 29).
Following the creation of the United Nations in 1945, the ILO widened its examination of the situation of indigenous workers, and began to address the broader issues pertaining to indigenous and tribal peoples. In the 1950s, the ILO, with the participation of other parts of the UN system, began to work on the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention (No. 107). Convention No. 107 was adopted in 1957 as the first international treaty on this subject. It was eventually ratified by 27 countries, mostly in the Americas, but also in South Asia and in several African and European countries.
As the years went by, certain weaknesses in Convention No. 107 became obvious, particular the underlying assumption that the only possible future for indigenous and tribal peoples was integration into the larger society and that the State should make decisions on their development. With the growing awareness, organisation and participation of indigenous and tribal peoples at the national and international levels during the 1960s and 1970s, these assumptions were challenged. Eventually, the approach of Convention No. 107 was questioned as being integrationist and calls were made to revise and update it. A Committee of Experts, convened in 1986 by the Governing Body of the ILO, concluded that “the integrationist approach of the Convention was obsolete and that its application was detrimental in the modern world.”
In 1988 and 1989, the revision of Convention No. 107 was on the agenda of the International Labour Conference (ILC) and in June 1989, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169) was adopted.
Convention No. 169 is based on a general attitude of respect for the cultures and ways of life of indigenous and tribal peoples and the fundamental assumption that indigenous and tribal peoples constitute permanent societies with a right to determine their own priorities for the development process. The two main principles of the Convention are that these peoples should be consulted and participate in decision-making processes at all levels, as they affect their lives and communities.
As of 2008, Convention No. 169 has been ratified by 19 countries but its influence goes beyond the actual number of ratifications as it is a reference point for discussions and policies on indigenous peoples’ rights in a number of countries and international processes. It sets minimum international standards, while holding the door open for higher standards in countries that can go further. It seeks to bring all those concerned –governments, organizations of indigenous and tribal peoples, and other non-governmental organizations – into the same dialogue.
On 13 September 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP reaffirms the importance of the principles and approaches provided for under Convention No. 169. The provisions of Convention No. 169 and UNDRIP are compatible and mutually reinforcing and the aoption of the UNDRIP thus provides a fresh impetus for promoting the ratification and implementation of Convention No. 169.
The ILO’s work in the field of indigenous and tribal peoples falls into two categories: The supervision of Conventions Nos. 107 and 169
and assistance to indigenous and tribal peoples and to governments.
In 1993, Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA), started an agreement with the ILO to fund the new Interregional Programme to Support Self-Reliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples through Cooperatives and Self-Help Organizations, also known as INDISCO. The purpose of the programme was to address social and economic issues of concern to these peoples through pilot-projects on cooperative development and poverty alleviation. The programme now goes under the name of IP/LED (Indigenous Peoples Local Economic Development) and) and continues to alleviate poverty and strengthen the local economies of indigenous peoples in Africa and Asia.
Due largely to the increasing interest in information on Convention No. 169 from Indigenous and tribal peoples, the ILO started the Programme to Promote ILO Convention No.169 (PRO 169)
in 1996 with the support of the Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA). At the time when the project was initiated no country in Africa or in Asia had ratified Convention No.169, therefore it was decided that the focus would be on these regions. With time however, the programme has started to expand its scope. Today there are regional programmes in Africa, South Asia and in Latin America and national programmes or activities in a number of countries, funded by a variety of donors.