In addition to all human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants on human rights such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which rights are to be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. , indigenous peoples enjoy the rights enshrined in the  Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the rights to self-determination; lands, territories and resources; and collective rights.

Indigenous peoples’ rights have also been recognised by the International Labour Organization Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, 1989 (ILO No. 169). This convention covers the indigenous peoples’ rights to non-discrimination; development; customary laws; lands, territories and resources; employment, education and health. It also includes several dispositions on the governments’ obligations to organise free, prior and informed consultations.

At a regional level, there are monitoring mechanisms which ensure the protection of indigenous rights such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples´ Rights, and the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.

The United Nations (UN) developed a fact-sheet that provides a reader-friendly overview of the United Nations human rights system and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Rights of indigenous peoples and the right to a healthy environment

The rights of the indigenous peoples are closely related to the right to a healthy environment. Indigenous peoples often hold a special link with land and territory. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has recognised this tie ‘as the fundamental basis of their cultures, their spiritual life, their integrity, and their economic survival. For indigenous communities, relations to the land are not merely a matter of possession and production but a material and spiritual element which they must fully enjoy, even to preserve their cultural legacy and inherit it to future generations.’ In this sense, the protection of environmental factors related to land and territory is fundamental for preserving the spiritual and cultural legacy of indigenous peoples.

As indigenous communities rely on their territories for their material and cultural existence, they are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm. Accordingly, the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment affirm that ‘States should take additional measures to protect the rights of those who are most vulnerable to, or at particular risk from, environmental harm, taking into account their needs, risks and capacities.’

Principle 15 of the Framework Principles On Human Rights And The Environment develops the obligations that States have with indigenous peoples regarding the protection of the environment. Those are:

  • ‘Recognizing and protecting their rights to the lands, territories and resources that they have traditionally owned, occupied or used;
  • Consulting with them and obtaining their free, prior and informed consent before relocating them or taking or approving any other measures that may affect their lands, territories or resources;
  • Respecting and protecting their traditional knowledge and practices in relation to the conservation and sustainable use of their lands, territories and resources;
  • Ensuring that they fairly and equitably share the benefits from activities relating to their lands, territories or resources’

Indigenous peoples are often the most important environmental defenders as they struggle against political and economic interests in the defence of their territories and their rights. The Rainforest Alliance has stated: ‘As effective as Indigenous people are at protecting forests, they and their rights are frequently under assault.’