The Indigenous World 2022: European Union Engagement with Indigenous Issues

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 27 Member States. Its legislative and executive powers are divided between the EU main institutions: the European Parliament (co-legislative authority), the Council of the European Union (co-legislative and executive authority) and the European Commission (executive authority). In addition, the EU has its own diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (with EU Delegations throughout the world).

The EU maintains trade relations with the whole world and is the biggest donor of development aid. Aside from the influence within the territory of its Member States and its influence in international organisations, the EU also has a global impact as an international key player in the area of ​​human rights, development, and control of corporate and environmental issues.

The EU is part of the international process of promoting and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Four EU Member States have ratified ILO Convention No 169[1] and the EU supported the adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007 as well as the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014.

In recent years, the EU has moved from a relatively passive position on recognition of Indigenous Peoples' rights to a much more active involvement in ensuring the effectiveness of these rights in its policies.

Long reserved only for European actors involved in defending human rights, the issue of the protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples has an increasingly cross-cutting influence within the European system and is involving an ever-greater diversity of actors. This transposition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples into the European system as a cross-cutting aspect of human empowerment and development cooperation is particularly significant at the level of the European Parliament and is generating a rapid evolution in the production of European legislation.

During 2021, the European Parliament voted through five resolutions that include Indigenous Peoples’ rights and issues. These resolutions call for better protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and demand greater inclusion of Indigenous Peoples’ representatives in decision-making procedures. These resolutions cover such crucial issues for Indigenous Peoples as: corporate due diligence and corporate accountability, the effects of climate change on human rights and the role of environmental defenders in this regard, the state of human rights in the world in 2020, Arctic protection, and the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations in developing countries. A focus on the specific impact on women and girls was integrated into the resolutions, in line with Parliament's desire to promote a transformative and intersectional approach, and to call for gender mainstreaming in all its policies and actions. These resolutions originated and saw the light of day thanks to the collaboration of seven of the European Parliament’s committees working on subjects as diverse as human rights, development and the environment but also, and this is significant: agriculture, international trade and legal affairs.

Evolution of European legislation and recommendations relating to Indigenous Peoples[2]

On 19 May 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution prepared by the Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) working with the Committee on Development (DEVE), the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), on : “The effects of climate change on human rights and the role of environmental defenders on this matter.[3] The Rapporteur for this resolution, Mrs. María Soraya Rodríguez Ramos, organised many meetings with Indigenous representatives and invited them to hearings. With this resolution, Parliament:

Strongly condemns the increase in the number of murders, defamatory attacks, acts of persecution, criminalization, imprisonment, harassment and intimidation against indigenous people and environmental human rights activists and land defenders worldwide and calls for those responsible to be held accountable.[4]

Parliament also:

Recalls the obligation of states to protect environmental defenders and their families against harassment, intimidation and violence and their obligation to recognise the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities and to acknowledge the contribution of their experience and knowledge to the fight against biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.[5]

It further underlines their:

Specific role and expertise in land management and preservation and calls for increased cooperation with and inclusion of indigenous peoples as well as for efforts to strengthen their democratic participation in relevant decision-making processes, including those related to international climate diplomacy.[6]

Parliament welcomed the Commission’s efforts to support Indigenous Peoples’ participation through its specific support for several projects and encouraged the Commission to continue to promote dialogue and collaboration between Indigenous Peoples and the European Union as well as with international forums, notably in relation to climate change.

On 6 October 2021, the Committee on Development submitted to a vote its resolution on: “The role of development policy in the response to biodiversity loss in developing countries, in the context of the achievement of the 2030 Agenda”.[7] Members of the Committee on Development chose Ms Michèle Rivasi as Rapporteur because of her long-standing involvement on behalf of Indigenous Peoples. The Rapporteur organised several meetings and conferences with Indigenous representatives and passed a very strong resolution recalling the importance for Indigenous Peoples of the Union adopting strong legislation in terms of human rights and environmental corporate due diligence for companies throughout their supply chains. The resolution also stresses the importance of preserving Indigenous knowledge to address climate change and future health crises and calls on the EU and its Member States to enhance the scrutiny of EU-funded projects and trade agreements in order to prevent and detect human rights abuses and enable action against such abuses.

On 7 October 2021, less than a month before the high-level EU Arctic Forum and the Annual Arctic Indigenous Peoples' Dialogue organised by the European Commission and the European External Action Service was to be held, Parliament voted through a resolution on: “The Arctic: opportunities, concerns and security challenges”[8] prepared by the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). Parliament reiterated its call to include Indigenous Peoples in decision-making processes and recommended that the EU pursue policies to ensure that measures addressing environmental concerns take into account the interests of the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic region. Parliament recalled “the need to obtain indigenous peoples' free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures or launching development projects that may affect them”.[9]

Furthermore, Article 46 of the Resolution:

Stresses the need to ensure the preservation of indigenous peoples’ cultures, traditions and languages by establishing capacity building programmes to increase awareness about the diversity, history and the rights of indigenous peoples, not only for indigenous youths but also for non-indigenous populations across the region; calls on EU delegations in the Arctic states to engage in a genuine and inclusive dialogue with indigenous peoples at national and regional levels and to serve as focal points on indigenous peoples’ issues; highlights the need for the staff of these EU delegations to be versed in indigenous peoples’ rights, as affirmed under UNDRIP; welcomes the growing acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous peoples in the EU’s external policies; calls for enhanced coherence between the EU’s internal and external Arctic policies in this area.[10]

The legislative proposal on corporate due diligence and corporate accountability[11]

The European Commission conducted a public consultation on sustainable corporate governance from 30 July 2020 to 8 October 2020. More than 70 Indigenous organisations participated in this consultation. On 10 March 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recommending that the Commission initiate a legislative proposal on corporate due diligence and corporate accountability. This resolution was spearheaded by the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI), working with the Committee on International Trade (INTA), the Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) and the Committee on Development (DEVE). The purpose of the resolution is to influence the legislative procedure launched by the Commission on sustainable corporate governance, which is in the preparatory phase.

In its resolution, Parliament supports the adoption of binding legislation considering that “voluntary due diligence standards have not achieved significant progress in preventing human rights and environmental harm and in enabling access to justice”.[12] Parliament considered that any future mandatory Union due diligence framework should apply to all large undertakings governed by the law of a Member State, established in the territory of the Union or operating in the internal market, as well as to small- and medium-sized companies if they are publicly listed. In order to ensure that products placed on the internal market are in conformity with the environmental and human rights criteria set out in the future due diligence legislation, this should be complemented by other measures such as a prohibition of the import of products related to severe human rights violations. Furthermore, the Parliament stipulated in Article 39 of the resolution that:

Undertakings should ensure that where the stakeholders are indigenous peoples such discussions are conducted in accordance with international human rights standards, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including free, prior and informed consent and indigenous peoples' right to self-determination.[13]

The launch by the Commission of the legislative procedure on sustainable corporate governance, initially expected to be published in the second quarter of 2021, was subsequently postponed to December 2021, and then postponed again to March 2022. This delay has been met with criticism from civil society and many MEPs.

Deforestation regulation proposal of 17 November 2021[14]

This proposal from the European Commission aims to minimise the consumption of products coming from supply chains associated with deforestation or forest degradation, and is the most ambitious legislative initiative on deforestation to date. It will be the first legislation to regulate not only illegal deforestation but any deforestation linked to the production of forest-risk commodities. When it comes into effect, commercial actors will need to demonstrate that such commodities were not grown or raised on land that was deforested or degraded after 31 December 2020 prior to being sold on the EU market.

Unfortunately, the proposed regulation does not require compliance with international human rights law standards, preferring to rely on the “relevant legislation of the country of production”.[15] This is a significant limitation to the rights of Indigenous Peoples and forest communities, in particular respect for customary tenure rights and the principle of free, prior and informed consent, whose rights are often inadequately protected by national laws.

As our colleagues Anouska Perram and Antoine Gibert from the Forest Peoples Programme concluded:

While the deforestation regulation is a welcome and long overdue proposal, the failure to incorporate human rights is a major shortcoming that is likely to limit its effectiveness and generate perverse outcomes. Deforestation and human rights violations are highly correlated, and indigenous and forest peoples are recognised as some of the best guardians of the forest. Not dealing with deforestation and human rights due diligence in an integrated way is a missed opportunity for a more effective and comprehensive regulation and out of step with global sustainability standards.[16]

The author of this article, Mathias Wuidar is a human rights lawyer. He works as a representative to the EU for the Indigenous Peoples Centre for Documentation, Research and Information (Docip).


This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Denmark (1996), The Netherlands (1998), Spain (2007) and Luxembourg (2018).

[2] For more information on the EU legislative evolution related to Indigenous Peoples before the year 2021, please refer to Rodriguez Fajardo, Amalia, and Mathias Wuidar. “European Union Engagement with Indigenous Issues”. In The Indigenous World 2020 and 2021, Edited by Dwayne Mamo. IWGIA, 2020, 2021.

[3] European Parliament. “Resolution of 19 May 2021 on the effects of climate change on human rights and the role of environmental defenders on this matter”. Brussels, 19 May 2021.

[4] Idem

[5] Idem

[6] Idem

[7] European Parliament. “Resolution of 6 October 2021 on the role of development policy in the response to biodiversity loss in developing countries, in the context of the achievement of the 2030 Agenda”. Brussels, 6 October2021.

[8] European Parliament. “Resolution of 7 October 2021 on the Arctic: opportunities, concerns and security challenges”. Brussels, 7 October 2021.

[9] Idem

[10] Idem

[11] European Parliament. “Resolution of 10 March 2021 with recommendations to the Commission on corporate due diligence and corporate accountability”. Brussels, 10 March 2021.

[12] Idem

[13] Idem

[14] European Commission. “Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on the making available on the Union market as well as export from the Union of certain commodities and products associated with deforestation and forest degradation and repealing Regulation (EU) No 995/2010”. Brussels, 17 November 2021.

[15] Idem

[16] Anouska Perram and Antoine Gibert. “The European Commission’s new proposed deforestation regulation - What does it mean for indigenous peoples and forest communities?”. Forest Peoples Programme, December 2021.

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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