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Definition & Legal Instruments


There is no single definition of indigenous peoples adopted at the international level. ILO Convention No. 169 provides subjective and objective criteria for identifying indigenous peoples. Self-identification is the sole subjective criteria, considered as fundamental, whereas the prescribed objective criteria are as follows:

  • Indigenous peoples:
    • Descend from populations who inhabited the country or geographical region at the time of conquest, colonization or establishment of present state boundaries
    • Retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions, irrespective of their legal status
  • Tribal peoples:
    • Their social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community.
    • Their status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations.

In the African context, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) issued an advisory opinion in 2007 on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The ACHPR emphasized that indigenous peoples had a special attachment to and use of traditional lands and a state of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion and discrimination due to their different culture, way of life and livelihoods. This opinion assigned comparatively less weight to the association of indigeneity with descent from the ‘first inhabitants’, because as the ACHPR stated, on these grounds and in the African context, most Africans consider themselves indigenous.

Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)

According to the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is a manifestation of indigenous peoples’ right to self-determine their political, social, economic and cultural priorities. It consists of three interrelated and cumulative rights of indigenous peoples:

  • The right to be consulted
  • The right to participate
  • The right to their lands, territories and resources

While States’ interpretations of FPIC vary, the right of indigenous peoples to be consulted is firmly established under international law. The UNDRIP states that governments should obtain the FPIC of indigenous peoples for development projects. Governments should also provide redress when indigenous cultural, intellectual property or genetic resources are taken without consent. Although ILO Convention No. 169 does not specifically contain the terminology of “free, prior and informed consent”, elements of consent requirements are present and do not preclude a substantive free, prior and informed consent-driven approach.

The Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has also stated that with regard to the right of consultation:

  • Consultations must be formal, full and exercised in good faith; there must be a genuine dialogue between Governments and indigenous and tribal peoples characterized by communication and understanding, mutual respect, good faith and the sincere wish to reach a common accord
  • Appropriate procedural mechanisms have to be put in place at the national level and they have to be in a form appropriate to the circumstances
  • Consultations have to be undertaken through indigenous and tribal peoples’ institutions
  • Consultations have to be undertaken with the objective of reaching agreement or consent to the proposed measures

Legal Instruments

An ILO convention and a UN declaration form the international legal framework on indigenous peoples’ rights and are used by most countries that recognize indigenous peoples’ rights as guidance to their own national laws. These conventions outline rights specific to indigenous peoples and serve as a framework for indigenous and tribal empowerment.

To date, just over 20 countries have ratified ILO Convention No. 169. The Convention is legally binding upon the States that have ratified it and concrete steps need to be taken by them to ensure that their obligations under the Convention are effectively implemented at the national level. However, in many countries, there are still considerable challenges in terms of applying the Convention in law and practice, particularly regarding the right to consultation.

The UNDRIP, a non-binding instrument, is supported by most States and was adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007. The UNDRIP establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world. It elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.

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