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An indigenous man from the Gaviao tribe receives a greeting from a Maori woman from New Zealand during the closing ceremony of the first World Games for Indigenous Peoples in Palmas, Brazil, October 31, 2015. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was signed on September 13, 2007 — 143 countries in support, four against and 12 abstaining.

The declaration recognizes and affirms the collective and individual human rights of first nations as peoples and human beings, thereby proclaiming their equality with all other members of society.

Indigenous peoples matter. Numbering between 350 to 500 million in up to 90 countries, they are the descendants of the first arrivals or earliest surviving occupants of a land. Comprising 5,000 distinct cultural groups speaking 4,000 of the world’s 7,000 languages, they encompass 90 percent of the world’s cultural diversity.

Living on 22 percent of the earth’s land mass, their territories harbour 80 percent of its remaining biodiversity. Their cultures are deeply embedded within the environment and, once belittled, are now increasingly regarded as integral to the survival of the planet.

Since the signing of UNDRIP, there has been slow but steady progress made on Indigenous rights around the world. Recognition is the first step toward implementation and many more countries now recognize the declaration.

In 2009, state recognition increased significantly when 182 states at the Durban World Conference on Racism endorsed the declaration; several of the countries that originally abstained, such as Colombia and Samoa, now support the declaration; and having overcome the self-inflicted trauma of their previous hesitation, the governments of the four countries who opposed it — the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — also now support the declaration. But while recognition is a first important step, implementation has been slow (as this site reported earlier this year, such is the case in Canada).

In addition to UNDRIP, Indigenous rights are being recognized or enshrined in new laws, international framework and constitutional arrangements.

Guided by the principle that “no one is left behind,” Indigenous peoples are a priority under the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on meaningful climate action declared that when Indigenous land rights are protected those communities are the best guardians of the world’s forests and biodiversity.

From the Waitangi Tribunal and courts in New Zealand, where the declaration reinforces the Treaty of Waitangi, to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the international judiciary is also increasingly citing the declaration and supporting the protection of Indigenous rights.

UNDRIP is also being increasingly incorporated into domestic law. South America has been an important leader, in particular Bolivia under the leadership of President Evo Morales. In Europe, Denmark has granted greater self-government to Greenland, where the majority of the population is Inuit. In Africa, the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Namibia and Burundi have taken steps to recognize Indigenous peoples.

Despite progress made in the last 10 years, Indigenous peoples remain the most vulnerable of the world’s peoples. One Indigenous language is lost every two weeks. Wherever they live, Indigenous communities are the poorest of the poor. At six percent of the world’s population, they make up 15 percent of the world’s poorest peoples.

Indigenous women and children continue to endure significant violence. Indigenous peoples continue to face significant racism. In developed countries there is a “new colourism,” with Western-dominated government, education and social institutions preferring Indigenes that are compliant, middle class, and who have fair skin and European features. Concern is also rising that some Indigenous elites are leaving the […]

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