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World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

When indigenous and world leaders meet, what does it mean for the ILO?

A historic meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York is set to bolster further ratification of the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.

Comment | 18 September 2014
Comment by Martin Oelz, ILO Legal Specialist.
The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples opens at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. For the first time several Heads of Governments and States will meet indigenous peoples’ representatives from all over world in the same venue.

The historic gathering follows other important steps over the last three decades that have brought recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and promoted their participation at the international level. These include the adoption of the ILO's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), the creation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, and the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

In New York, world leaders will not only reaffirm their commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights but also pledge to take specific action at the national level in partnership with indigenous peoples to realize their rights. The Conference is also expected to set in motion a process of strengthening the work of the UN system on indigenous peoples at the country level.

The draft outcome document submitted for adoption by the World Conference will be important for the ILO, as it is the institutional host of Convention No. 169 - a legally binding international instrument specifically dedicated to indigenous peoples. Since its adoption 25 years ago, Convention No. 169 has been a driver for far-reaching transformative processes towards more democracy, respect for human rights, inclusive societies and peace in numerous countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The 2007 UN Declaration has amplified the global movement and commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights. But much remains to be done in promoting the ratification of Convention No. 169 in Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific. Among the 22 ratifications registered with the ILO so far, only seven are from countries in these regions.

There was consensus during the preparatory negotiations for the World Conference outcome document that the Heads of State should encourage further ratification of the Convention. Such a move could be catalytic. Policy makers and indigenous peoples in countries such as Bangladesh, Finland, El Salvador, Indonesia, Panama, the Philippines and Sweden have been discussing or even actively pursuing ratification.

The Government of the Republic of Congo has recently adopted a national action plan (2014-2017) which includes ratification of Convention No. 169 as a key element to improve the conditions of the indigenous groups affected by exclusion and poverty.

From Congo: When Political will creates new ground for indigenous peoples’ rights

On a recent mission to the Republic of Congo, Morse Flores, ILO staff member and officer for the UN Indigenous Peoples Partnership (UNIPP) recorded his impressions of a joint UN project to help raise awareness of indigenous peoples' rights. In 2011, the government of the Republic of Congo adopted Law No. 5-2011 on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Populations, becoming the first African country to adopt a specific law on indigenous peoples. He watches indigenous leaders and members of the Congolese government in a parliamentary debate to discuss the development of a national law on indigenous peoples’ rights and the possible ratification of the ILO’s Convention on indigenous and tribal peoples, Convention 169. Morse also visits a remote community of the Babongo people who live in extreme poverty, suffer multiple forms of discrimination and are excluded from access to basic social services.


Building fruitful relations

The Convention regulates the State’s obligation to consult indigenous peoples as regards legislative and administrative measures which may affect them, including approval for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources pertaining to the lands that they traditionally occupy or use. The Convention also calls for effective mechanisms for their participation in decision-making processes.

Implementing these provisions is an on-going and a long-term process in most countries that requires continuing support, exchange of experiences and encouragement. But these are critical investments in building fruitful relations between indigenous peoples and governments, and for sustainable development and the full realization of indigenous peoples’ rights and their legitimate aspirations.

From the ILO’s perspective, supporting indigenous peoples’ economic activities as well as their political empowerment, is important. Recognizing and protecting their land rights are essential for protecting their livelihoods and community-based economies.

As pointed out by the ILO during the preparatory phase leading up to the World Conference, indigenous peoples’ traditional occupations, skills and knowledge are assets that can provide a basis for self-employment, as well as the creation of enterprises and cooperatives. Local infrastructure projects developed and implemented with the full participation of indigenous communities can involve the creation of small enterprises and work opportunities within the community.

But there are also obstacles here as well. The lack of access to land and other resources and to basic social services often means that indigenous men and women, particularly youths, have no other choice than to migrate, both within countries and internationally. Indigenous women migrating to enter into domestic work is a case in point.

Another serious issue is the lack of access to education and vocational training developed and implemented in cooperation with indigenous peoples that is in line with their cultures and needs. This problem, which particularly affects girls, places indigenous youths in a severely disadvantaged position in the labour market. Irrespective of whether they work in urban or rural areas, indigenous women and men tend to find themselves in informal or casual jobs where they are vulnerable to discrimination and other rights violations. As a result, they also find themselves excluded from any form of social protection.

Next week in New York, the ILO will participate in the World Conference to share experiences from its work with governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations, indigenous peoples and the UN family to support ratification and implementation of Convention No. 169 and to promote social justice and decent work for all.