International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2015

This year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August) is devoted to the theme of “Post-2015 Agenda: Ensuring indigenous peoples health and well-being,” highlighting the importance of indigenous peoples’ access to health care services. The “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Volume II”, which will be launched at the UN Headquarters event in observance of the International Day, provides important background information on the topic.


This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples, which was created in 1985 to support indigenous participation at the United Nations. Over the past 30 years, around 2,000 indigenous people have received a grant from the Fund.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2009


Implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Handbook for Parliamentarians


– Learn more about the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
– UN videos on indigenous issues
– Fact sheets on related topics
– Various reports and publications from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Background Notes

The Pacific Region
The Pacific Islands[1] are home to a diverse range of indigenous peoples speaking 19 per cent of the world’s estimated 5,000 languages. Indigenous peoples in the Pacific are still linked to their communal lands, belief systems, spirituality and customary laws which form the basis of their social, economic and political systems.

One distinctive feature of the Pacific region is that indigenous peoples make up the majority in most Pacific Island countries. At the same time in some countries in the Pacific region, colonial settlements and immigration has reduced the indigenous population to a minority in their own lands such as the Kanaks of Kanaky/New Caledonia who make up 44 per cent of the population; the Kanaka Maoli of Hawaii (18 per cent); the Maori of Atearoa/New Zealand (15 per cent); the Chamorro of Guam (14 per cent) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia (2 per cent).

Climate Change
Climate change is already disproportionally affecting the small islands of the Pacific. Although islanders have done little to contribute to the cause, less than 0.03% of current global greenhouse gas emissions, they are among the first to be affected. Most islands are experiencing climate change impacts on communities, infrastructure, water supply, coastal and forest ecosystems, fisheries, agriculture, and human health. The consequences of sea level rise, sea temperature increases, ocean acidification, altered rainfall patterns, and overall temperature rise will be increasingly felt.

In the small island States of the Pacific a majority of the population depends on the natural resources from farming, forestry and fisheries, which are susceptible to the effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples in countries like Kiribati, Nuie, Marshall Island, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Nauru, small atolls in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu and in the Torres Straits of Australia stand to lose everything because of rising sea levels. Indigenous peoples will not only lose their lands, natural resources and their livelihoods but also their countries.

Of the 16 Non-Self-Governing Territories currently listed for active consideration by the Special Committee on Decolonization, four are located in the Pacific (American Samoa, Guam, New Caledonia and Tokelau).

Environmental Hazards
After the Second World War the United States, along with its French and British allies, frequently tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific region. British and American nuclear tests occurred in Australia, Mururoa (or Moruroa) Atoll in French Polynesia and Bikini Atoll in the Marshall archipelago of the Pacific. While nuclear testing in the Pacific has ended, the region has requested reparation to compensate for health effects to former site workers, civilians and military personnel at the old nuclear sites and surrounding communities. The Pacific region is also used as a dumping ground for toxic and hazardous waste as well as nuclear waste on indigenous lands.

The issue of migration is central to the Pacific region. Over millions of years, Pacific islanders travelled great distances in canoes to settle islands. During the colonial period, indentured labour was brought in to work in the sugar and pineapple industries in Fiji and Hawaii which alienated indigenous peoples from their lands. Also, indentured labour from the Pacific were brought to Australia during the late 1800s, early 1900s to work in the sugar cane fields as well as labourers for building roads and railways. Many descendants (now called South Sea islanders) married Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Today, a high percentage of Pacific Islanders reside overseas in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America. In some smaller countries, the number of people living overseas is greater than the number of peoples who remain on their island home. This has caused significant social problems as well as benefits such as the transfer of remittances, increased skills and education, promotion of tourism and small business.

The urban drift is also common in the Pacific with people seeking employment, education and health services. As a result the population of towns and cities have increased, thus impacting heavily on services and housing. In New Zealand, the drift from rural to the urban areas is high with over 80 per cent of Maori living in urban centres.

[1] The Pacific comprises the following: Australia, Cook Islands ((Rarotonga), Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Nauru, New Zealand (including Tokelau), Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu), the three French territories (French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna) the United States territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands), Timor-Leste, the Province of West Papua, Indonesia, the islands of Hawaii, USA,  and the island of Rapa Nui, Chile.

Indigenous Peoples and Post-2015 Development Agenda
At the September 2010 UN Summit on Millennium Development Goals, Member States initiated steps towards advancing the development agenda beyond 2015. Indigenous peoples have consistently called for the recognition of their distinct cultural identities and political status of indigenous peoples – as rights holders and agents of change – in the post-2015 development agenda.

The indigenous peoples’ major group has clustered its concerns in six main areas: the need for disaggregation of data; rights to lands, territories and resources; free prior and informed consent; special measures that include health, education, etc.; access to justice and redress mechanisms; and participation and representation in decision-making in relevant bodies. They have also specifically recommended that the negotiations and related processes of post-2015 development agenda ensure indigenous peoples meaningful participation and access to the mechanisms tasked with the development of indicators, national policies, monitoring and evaluation.

Hunger and Disease
Indigenous peoples constitute 15% of the world’s poor and also about one-third of the world’s 900 million[1] extremely poor rural people. In addition to circumstances of extreme poverty, indigenous peoples suffer from malnutrition because of environmental degradation of their ecosystems, loss of their lands and territories, and the decline in abundance or accessibility of traditional food sources. Available data indicates that indigenous peoples’ overall well-being and cultural continuity are directly related to their ability to continue their traditional lifestyles, including food and health practices.

Nonetheless, indigenous peoples face huge disparities in terms of hunger and malnutrition and access to, and quality of healthcare, even in developed countries. Programmes designed to combat diseases often do not reach indigenous peoples because of issues related to poverty, a lack of access to medical care and drugs, language and cultural barriers, and geographic remoteness. Indigenous peoples are therefore more likely to experience reduced quality of life and ultimately die younger than their non-indigenous counterparts. They experience disproportionately high levels of maternal and infant mortality, cardiovascular illnesses, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Indigenous women experience health problems with particular severity and yet they play a primary role in overseeing the health and well-being of their families and communities. Indigenous peoples often suffer disproportionately from mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse and suicide.

Increasing indigenous peoples control over the design and delivery of health services is an important aspect of their rights to self-determination and non-discrimination, and has also been linked to more accessible health care and better health outcomes. It is therefore critical that health care models take into account indigenous concepts of health and strengthen indigenous-run health systems. This includes establishing clear mechanisms of cooperation among relevant health care personnel, communities, traditional healers, policy makers and government officials in order to ensure that the human resources respond to the epidemiological profile and socio-cultural context of indigenous communities.

Previous work of the Permanent Forum
The Permanent Forum has made a number of recommendations relating to the post-2015 development agenda and issues of hunger and disease of indigenous peoples. These include broader recommendations to member states and UN system entities to recognize indigenous peoples as distinct stakeholders and make specific reference to them, to reach out and engage in a truly inclusive process with them, including indigenous women, youth and persons with disabilities, to ensure that their rights and priorities are included and to develop and include clear indicators and monitoring tools relating to them in the Sustainable Development Goals and post-2015 development agenda.

With regards to hunger, the Forum has specifically recommended that States engage in an inclusive and participatory process to ensure food sovereignty and security, and develop standards and methodologies and cultural indicators accordingly.  The Forum has repeatedly called for improved disaggregated data on indigenous peoples’ health. It has recommended that WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA, as well as regional health organizations and Governments, foster rights-based approaches to health, including treaty rights, the right to culturally acceptable and appropriate services and indigenous women’s reproductive rights, and stop programmes of forced sterilization and abortion, which can constitute ethnic genocide. The Forum has also made several recommendations to WHO, PAHO and Governments focusing on non-communicable diseases. The Forum has also recommended relevant entities coordinate to formulate key intercultural standards and indicators of quality of care, including sexual and reproductive health of Indigenous Peoples, to be considered in the definition of a future Post-2015 goal on universal health care coverage.
[1] IFAD

Youth: Self-harm and Suicide
One person out of five today is between the ages of 15 and 24. As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “never before has the transition from youth to adulthood been so weighed by challenges, yet so blessed by opportunities.” Taking into account that there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, there are over 70 million indigenous youth globally. This number may well be higher, since indigenous peoples often have higher proportions of youth than non-indigenous peoples in the same countries.

The available data suggests that indigenous peoples experience disproportionately high rates of youth suicide. Although the reasons for youth suicide are complex and difficult to define, interference with, and destruction of, cultural structures has caused stress throughout subsequent generations and is a major contributor to suicidal behaviour. Indigenous youth today face the challenge of striking a balance between their place within their indigenous community, and within the mainstream society of the country in which they live. They may feel marginalized from both, resulting in a sense of socio-cultural isolation. This isolation, compounded by contemporary manifestations of discrimination, such as disproportionately high levels of poverty and unemployment, may contribute to the high rates of suicide experienced by certain indigenous peoples.

In addition, geographic and cultural isolation limit many indigenous youths’ access to services. Indigenous youth are less likely to receive adequate health care, including mental health care. Historical injustices, as a result of colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources that many indigenous peoples have suffered and continue to suffer has to a major extent not been resolved.   This has had an impact on indigenous peoples in many ways including on their physical and mental well-being, and on the indigenous youth who are often frustrated at the additional challenges they face due to their distinct identity and culture.

It should be noted that suicides are not only committed by youth and any measures to address youth self-harm and suicide must take into account that indigenous children can and sometimes do also take their lives.

Recommendations from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
The Permanent Forum has, since its establishment made youth a priority. At its first session  the Forum stated that it “…intends to make indigenous children and youth a focal point of its work in the years to come”.

Within this context, the Permanent Forum has repeatedly expressed its concern at the high rates of suicide among indigenous youth and called for studies and dedicated workshops to address the issue. In particular, the Permanent Forum has called upon various UN bodies to undertake   research into various areas related to youth self-harm and suicide, including the prevalence and causes of suicide among indigenous youth; best practices for engaging indigenous youth and children on prevention of suicide; and the root causes of indigenous youth suicide.

The Permanent Forum has also recommended that States take specific action with respect to this issue. Recommendations have called for incorporating indigenous youth perspectives into existing youth policies and plans with particular efforts to address suicide among indigenous youth. Additional recommendations have urged States to improve data collection; to allocate adequate resources for prevention; to develop programmes to revitalize languages, cultures and customs; and to develop training programmes on suicide prevention and mental health awareness.

Issues regarding indigenous self-harm and suicide were raised during the 2012 International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Youth. The meeting highlighted the need for States, the UN system and other actors to developed policies and programmes with an intercultural approach and to strengthen indigenous peoples’ control over the development of measures to address youth self-harm and suicide. The report from that meeting makes a series of recommendations regarding steps needed to tackle this complex issue (for details see E/C.19/2013), many of which were reiterated by the Permanent Forum in its 2013 annual report (See E/2013/43, paras. 8, 9 and 18).

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Each year, the Permanent Forum devotes attention during its annual session to the issue of human rights. For its 14th session in 2015, the Permanent Forum has decided to focus special attention on the consideration of economic, social and cultural rights.

This issue is of special importance in 2014-2015 given that the international community is in the process of formulating the post-2015 development agenda.

Economic, social and cultural rights cover a range of issues relevant to the rights of indigenous peoples. They relate to various socio-economic issues, including development, health, education, poverty reduction, employment, food, housing, and water and sanitation, among others. Given the complexities and financial implications involved in securing these rights of all peoples in all countries, both developed and developing, States are expected to move towards the “progressive realization” of economic and social rights. Cultural rights are of particular relevance for indigenous peoples given that indigenous peoples are culturally distinct from the majority societies in which they live. Cultural rights involve protection for traditional and religious practices, languages, sacred sites, cultural heritage, intellectual property, oral and traditional history, etc.

The rights of indigenous peoples to a range of economic, social and cultural rights are guaranteed in various international instruments. The principal legal instrument articulating these rights in broad terms is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR). Other international instruments also include references to economic, social and cultural rights, especially for specific groups (e.g. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the foremost instrument on indigenous peoples’ rights. It articulates how economic, social and cultural rights apply in the specific context of indigenous peoples. As reflected throughout relevant provisions of the Declaration, it is necessary to consider economic, social and cultural rights for indigenous peoples in light of the overarching principles of self-determination and non-discrimination.[1]

Indigenous peoples continue to live in situations of extreme disadvantage in social and economic terms as compared to other segments of society. In this connection, there are numerous ongoing barriers to the full exercise of their economic, social and cultural rights, including in the following areas: (1) the existence of disaggregated data and other information concerning the specific social and economic situation and needs of indigenous peoples; (2) access to culturally appropriate social and economic programmes and services, including in rural and isolated areas, where indigenous peoples often live; (3) the participation of indigenous peoples in the design and delivery of social and economic programmes and services, at both the national and international levels, and the strengthening indigenous peoples’ self-determined development; and (4) the recognition and protection of indigenous peoples’ lands, territories and resources, which form the basis for their cultures, livelihoods and economic development.

Previous work of the Permanent Forum
Since its establishment, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has made numerous recommendations concerning the economic, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples. These recommendations have been directed at UN agencies, as well as at Member States and indigenous peoples themselves. Recommendations relate to the following broad categories: access to culturally appropriate services in areas of education and health, as well as poverty reduction; increasing indigenous peoples self-determined development and development with cultural and identity, with a goal of increasing indigenous peoples’ participation in and control over services in programmes related to their economic, social and cultural situations; the need for increased information, especially though the disaggregation of data, concerning the situation of indigenous peoples; and finally, the particular social, economic and cultural situations of indigenous women, youth, elderly and persons with disabilities.

The themes of the annual sessions of the Permanent Forum have frequently related to economic, social and cultural rights. The Permanent Forum members have also prepared several substantive reports relevant to economic, social and cultural rights.
[1] See A/69/267, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, to the United Nations General Assembly (2014).