Indigenous World 2019: European Union Engagement with Indigenous Issues

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 28 Member States established in 1951. Its legislative and executive powers are divided between the EU’s three main institutions: the European Parliament (co-legislative authority - EP), the Council of the European Union (co-legislative and executive authority - CoEU) and the European Commission (executive authority - CE). In addition, the EU has its own diplomatic service: the European External Action Service (with EU “embassies” throughout the world).

The EU has influence within the territory of its Member States but also has a global impact being an international key player, notably on human rights, development and environment issues. In this sense, “While internal competences concern the European Union's internal functioning, external competences are those that fall within the framework of the EU's relations and partnerships with non-EU countries and international, regional or global organisations.”[1]

The EU is part of the international process of promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. Since 1996, four EU Member States have ratified the ILO Convention No 169[2], all EU Member States have signed the UNDRIP in 2007, and the EU has contributed to and supported the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014.

“The European Union is founded on values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.”[3] Those values also guide the EU's action both inside and outside its borders.

In this regard, the EU requires that all its development, investment and trade policies respect human rights and it is the largest provider of development aid in the world as it puts respect for human rights at the forefront of its aid granting policy.

The following pages are a summary of the main actions undertaken by the EU to protect and promote the human rights of indigenous peoples.

Evolution of EU legislation regarding indigenous peoples

The EU contributes to and applies the various UN legal instruments that protect the rights of indigenous peoples, however it also develops its own legislation to support indigenous peoples.

The first step taken by the EU was the “Communication from the EC to the European Council of 27 May 1998 on a partnership for integration: a strategy for integrating the environment into EU policies”[4]. The EC Working Document of May 1998 entitled "On support for indigenous peoples in the development co-operation of the Community and Member States" establishes the objectives of supporting indigenous peoples' rights and integrating the concern for indigenous peoples as a cross-cutting aspect of human empowerment and development cooperation. It advocates for the full and free participation of indigenous peoples in all stages of the project cycle and that their participation in development activities should include elements such as prior consultation, their consent to envisaged activities, their control over activities affecting their lives and land, and the identification of their own priorities for development.

The ensuing November 1998 Council Resolution of Development Ministers of the EU Member States[5] welcomes the Working Document and recognises that "cooperation with and support for the establishment of partnerships with indigenous peoples is essential for the objectives of poverty elimination, sustainable development of natural resources, the observance of human rights and the development of democracy". The CoEU further acknowledges that development cooperation should contribute to enhancing the right and capacity of indigenous peoples to their self-development.

On 11 June 2002, the EC submitted to the CoEU a report on the review of progress of working with indigenous peoples.[6] In November 2002, the CoEU adopted Council Conclusions[7] that recall the 1998 Council Resolution commitments and invites the EU to pursue their implementation.

Furthermore, although the EU includes indigenous peoples in its “, Since 2016, the EU’s Annual Report on human rights and democracy in the world” has repeatedly referred to issues related to indigenous peoples and their situation.

In 2016, the CoEU adopted “An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic”[8]. This policy focuses on climate change, environmental protection, sustainable development, international cooperation and particularly the participation of local stakeholders.

The following year, the CoEU adopted “Council Conclusions on indigenous peoples” (15 May 2017)[9]. The CoEU underlines the importance of addressing discrimination and inequalities based on indigenous origin or identity as well as the importance of actions taken to address the threats to and violence against indigenous peoples.

These conclusions follow the “Joint Staff Working Document - Implementing EU External Policy on Indigenous Peoples”[10] identifies ways for the EU to strengthen its support to indigenous peoples through existing external policies and financing.

On the same year, the EU adopted “The new European Consensus on Development” (2017).[11] This Consensus offers a common development vision for the EU, constituting a comprehensive common framework for European development cooperation, which aligns with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Finally, the EP published a Study “on the situation of indigenous children with disabilities” (2017)[12] which seeks to identify the discrimination and the human rights violations they face as well as the lack of data collection.

This legislative evolution, alongside specific human rights and development budgets for indigenous peoples, show the EU’s increasing involvement and protection for indigenous peoples’ rights. In this sense, the EU has shown its commitment to become a key-player in the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples, and the EP has strengthened this commitment by adopting its last resolution specifically on the rights of indigenous peoples in July 2018.

The current process: European Parliament’s resolution on “violation of the rights of indigenous peoples in the world, including land grabbing” (03/07/18)

On 3th July 2018, the EP adopted a resolution on “violation of the rights of indigenous peoples in the world, including land grabbing” (by 534 votes to 71, with 73 abstentions).[13]

The resolution covers the main issues and human rights violations faced by indigenous peoples around the world (it covers indigenous peoples both within and outside the EU).[14] It focuses particularly on human rights of indigenous peoples, land grabbing, business and human rights, sustainable and economic development for indigenous peoples and EU cooperation policy with third countries. By doing so, this resolution sets the EU’s main priorities and future steps regarding the rights of indigenous peoples.

At the outset, the EP “calls for the EU, the Member States and their partners in the international community to adopt all necessary measures for the full recognition, protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples, including to their lands, territories and resources” (art. 1). It also “calls for the EU to make sure that all its development, investment and trade policies respect the human rights of indigenous peoples as enshrined in human rights treaties and conventions” (art. 2). Moreover, it appeals to all states to ratify ILO Convention No 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, and in particular to the EU Member States and it “calls for all states, including the EU and its Member States, to follow all the necessary steps to effectively comply with the provisions contained in ILO Convention No 169” (art. 3 and 4) as well as “to create conditions for the fulfilment of the objectives set out in the UNDRIP” (art. 6).

In the part of “Human rights of indigenous peoples” (art. 8-27), the EP makes recommendations to all states regarding, among others, territorial autonomy and self-determination of indigenous peoples (art. 9), due attention to women, children and indigenous persons with disabilities (art. 11 and 26), access to judicial mechanisms (art. 13), the importance of consulting indigenous peoples in all deliberations on issues that could affect them, thereby guaranteeing their right to free, prior and informed consultation” including in “strategies for tackling climate change” (art. 17 and 18), continuing criminalisation of human rights defenders (art.23) and international repatriation and the establishment of an international mechanism to fight the sale of indigenous artefacts taken from them illegally” (art. 25).

In the part of “Land grabbing” (art. 28-39), the EP stresses the importance of the return of dislocated indigenous and local communities to their traditional territories in the context of post-conflict peace building involving land rights (art. 30), effective access to justice and remedy for indigenous peoples and pastoralists (art. 31), the impact of land grabs on women and girls (art. 33) and the request of “disclosure of land acquisitions involving EU-based corporations and actors or EU-funded development projects” and “the indispensable free, prior and informed consent” (art. 34).

In the part of “Business and human rights” (art. 40-48), the EP urges the EU “to maintain support for the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights” and to ensure that they are “fully integrated into the national programmes of Member States” (art. 40 and 41), “to engage in constructive negotiations on a UN treaty on transnational corporations that guarantees respect for the human rights of indigenous peoples” (art. 42) and it also “recommends that the EU develop a European regional action plan for business and human rights” (art. 43). Moreover, the EU insists on the importance for its institutions and its Member States to “work to hold multinational corporations and international financial institutions to account for their impact on indigenous communities’ human and environmental rights”, “to ensure that all violations of the rights of indigenous peoples by European companies are duly investigated and sanctioned through appropriate mechanisms” (art. 44) and “to fulfil its extraterritorial duties related to human rights” (art. 48), notably by setting up a grievance mechanism (art. 45), and by guaranteeing both the access to remedy for victims (art. 46) and the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consultation (art. 47).

In the part of “Sustainable and economic development for indigenous peoples” (art. 46-61), the EP invites the EU and its Member States “to integrate the issue of the rights of indigenous peoples and land grabbing into the EU’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (art. 49). It underlines the direct impact that climate change has on indigenous peoples and particularly on women (art. 52) and the key role played by indigenous peoples in both protecting the environment (art. 50) and “for sustainable management of natural resources and conservation of biodiversity” (art. 55). For this purpose, the EP “stresses the need to strengthen the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG) as the global mechanism for coordination” (art. 54). By reiterating “that indigenous peoples around the world suffer disproportionately from violations of human rights, crime, racism, violence, exploitation of natural resources, health problems, and high rates of poverty” (art. 53), the EP “calls on all states to commit to ensuring that indigenous peoples have genuine access to health, education, employment and economic opportunities” (art. 58).

In the part of “EU cooperation policy with third countries” (art. 62-86), the EP requires the EU to take a holistic and integrated approach to sustainable development (art. 71). It recommends “that greater prominence be given to the situation of indigenous peoples in the EU’s foreign policy, including in its human rights dialogues with third countries” (art. 62 and 63). Furthermore, the EP urges EU delegations and Member State embassies to “collect disaggregated data” (art. 67), “to review and improve their implementation of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, taking into account [...] the specific situation of indigenous human rights defenders who face multiple discrimination, such as women, the elderly, LGBTI people and those with disabilities” (art. 64). It also recalls the EU to ensure that all EU-funded development projects implemented on indigenous lands should respect the rights-based approach (art. 79) and comply with the principle of free, prior and informed consent (art. 70).

Finally, the EP calls for the establishment of four different mechanisms to strengthen the protection of indigenous peoples: (1) a grievance mechanism to lodge complaints regarding violations and abuses of their rights resulting from EU-based business activities (art. 45), (2) a mechanism to carry out independent impact assessment studies prior to the conclusion of trade and cooperation agreements (art. 72), (3) an effective administrative complaint mechanism for victims of human rights violations (art. 81) and (4) a standing rapporteur on indigenous peoples within the EP with the objective of monitoring the human rights situation, and in particular the implementation of the UNDRIP and ILO Convention No 169 (art. 85).

By this resolution, the EP has taken a step forward regarding the rights of indigenous peoples. By implementing the effective and concrete measures included in the resolution, the EU will achieve its purpose, as reiterated by the EP Rapporteur on the resolution:

There is no part solution for this kind of issue. That is why it is important that the EU fully shows its responsibilities. If we make a commitment to indigenous peoples, what we are doing first and foremost is signing up to a commitment to give the best we can. (Mr. Francisco Assis, MEP, Rapporteur “Violation of rights of indigenous peoples in the world” - Strasbourg, 2 July 18.[15]

Notes and references

[1] See the “Glossary of summaries” - EUR-Lex at

[2] Denmark (1996), The Netherlands (1998), Spain (2007) and Luxembourg (2018 - entry into force on 05 June 2019).

[3] See Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Indigenous Peoples” at

[4] See EUR-Lex Document 51998DC0333 at

[5] See European Commission - PRESS RELEASES - Press release - 2141th Council meeting Development Brussels, 30 November 1998 at

[6] See EUR-Lex Document 52002DC0291 at

[7] See European Commission Press release - 2463rd Council meeting - GENERAL AFFAIRS - Brussels, 18 November 2002 at

[8] See the EC Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council at

[9] See Outcome document from 15th May 2017

[10] See Joint staff working document on Implementing EU External Policy on Indigenous Peoples at

[11] See The New European Consensus on Development ‘Our World, Our Dignity, Our Future’ at

[12] See the European Parliament, The situation of indigenous children with disabilities

[13] See Texts adopted - Tuesday, 3 July 2018 - Violation of rights of indigenous peoples in the world at

[14] See point AM., articles 74 and 86.

[15] See European Parliament at

Amalia Rodriguez Fajardo and Mathias Wuidar are human rights lawyers. They work as representatives to the EU at the Indigenous peoples’ centre for documentation, research and information (Docip).


Tags: Global governance



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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