The Indigenous World 2021: UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples is one of the 56 “special procedures” of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The special procedures are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective.
The Special Rapporteur has a mandate to promote the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and relevant international human rights instruments; examine ways and means of overcoming existing obstacles to the full and effectively protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples; promote best practices; gather and exchange information from all relevant sources on violations of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples; and formulate recommendations and proposals on measures and activities to prevent and remedy violations of those rights.
On 1 May 2020, Mr. Francisco Cali-Tzay from Guatemala, a former member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, assumed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz from the Philippines was the Special Rapporteur from June 2014 to April 2020. She was the first woman and the first person from the Asian region to hold the position.
During 2020, the Special Rapporteur continued to focus on the principal mandated areas of work: promoting good practices; responding to specific cases of alleged human rights violations; conducting thematic studies, undertaking country visits; and making recommendations to governments and other actors.
2020 thematic studies
Each year, the Special Rapporteur presents two thematic reports, one to the Human Rights Council and one to the General Assembly.
First thematic report: COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples
The new Special Rapporteur, Mr. Cali-Tzay, assumed his mandate at the peak of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. He received extensive information on the pandemic-related risks and violations being experienced by Indigenous Peoples across the globe, both due to the virus and due to measures taken by states and private actors during the crisis. The Special Rapporteur therefore decided to devote his first thematic report to the General Assembly to the global impact of the pandemic on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In response to a public call for information on the topic, the Special Rapporteur received over 150 responses from Indigenous Peoples and organisations, civil society, independent national institutions, academics and experts. The report notes how Indigenous Peoples are especially vulnerable to the disease due to inadequate access to healthcare and clean water and due to their prior health conditions, and highlights how Indigenous Peoples and states responded in the crucial early period of the crisis.
The report provides an overview of violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights caused or exacerbated by the disease itself but also by certain measures taken by states to contain the pandemic or protect their national economies. The report furthermore refers to actions by companies that have sought to grab land from Indigenous Peoples despite COVID-19 restrictions and consultations with Indigenous Peoples and environmental impact assessments that have been abruptly suspended in order to force through megaprojects relating to agribusiness, mining, dams and infrastructure. In contrast, while companies have continued their activities and encroachment onto Indigenous lands, restrictions on Indigenous Peoples’ own movement and freedom to use and protect their lands have been repressively enforced. The escalating evictions of Indigenous Peoples from their lands and the loss of their traditional livelihoods, combined with the hardships of COVID-19, is aggravating extreme poverty and malnutrition in Indigenous communities.
Indigenous Peoples have been largely neglected in contingency measures and have in most countries only been included late, if at all, in the state’s response to COVID-19. As a result, their needs and requirements are neither adequately taken into account nor addressed by national programmes and policies. Effective responses to the pandemic and recovery measures must be a collaborative effort between Indigenous institutions and state institutions, combining Indigenous knowledge of what is best for their own communities and state services and financial support.
Without significantly strengthened action from states, the COVID crisis is pushing Indigenous Peoples even further behind in the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Indigenous Peoples’ traditional livelihoods and cultures risk becoming extinct as states prioritise their economic interests over the internationally recognised rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The report underlines the fact that Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land and self-determination, including their right to free, prior and informed consent before the approval of any project or measures that may affect them, are essential to building Indigenous resilience to crises the world over. Early inclusion of Indigenous Peoples and their institutions in contingency plans, crisis management and recovery planning is key to ensuring that their needs and requirements are taken into account and addressed by national programmes and policies. Recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ land rights is indispensable for the sustainable management of our planet’s limited resources, and thus key to the survival of us all.
Second thematic report: Strengthened protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights
The second thematic study developed in 2020 and submitted to the Human Rights Council in September was by the former Special Rapporteur, Ms Tauli-Corpuz. The report highlights examples of positive impacts from around the world with regard to strengthened protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, based on work that was carried out by her mandate during the period 2014-2020.
Among the examples highlighted are her interventions contributing to the acquittal of Indigenous leaders defending the land rights of their communities. Other examples illustrate how she intervened directly with several governments and financial investors in large-scale development projects across Asia, Africa and Latin America and successfully urged them to suspend activities pending compliance with human rights. In some instances, her advocacy contributed to halting evictions of Indigenous Peoples from their traditional lands. In other situations, she contributed to land rights litigation being decided in favour of Indigenous Peoples and the initiation of land demarcation and titling processes.
The same report also considers experiences and lessons learned regarding consultation processes and puts forward recommendations as to the implementation of international standards on consultation and free, prior and informed consent.
Regional overview of Indigenous Peoples in Asia
In addition, the mandate presented a second report to the Human Rights Council in September 2020 containing a regional overview of the situation of Indigenous Peoples in Asia. The former Special Rapporteur conducted a regional consultation in Bangkok in November 2019 attended by more than 100 representatives of Indigenous Peoples from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Thailand and Viet Nam, as well as the Taiwan Province of China. During the consultation, discussions and exchanges took place around the current challenges facing Indigenous Peoples in Asia.
The report from the consultation focuses on issues relating to self-determination, governance and justice systems; lands, territories and resources; conservation; climate change; business and human rights; human rights defenders; and the Sustainable Development Goals.
The report raises concerns over the massive displacements that Indigenous Peoples face across Asia, the destruction of their environment and the rising poverty due to land-grabbing. Large-scale development projects, including dams, mining, monocrop plantations and logging, are increasing in the region and causing serious human rights violations as Indigenous Peoples lose their traditional lands and resources. Across the region, Indigenous Peoples often lack legal recognition of their status and there is a widespread failure to protect their lands and respect their rights to participate and to be consulted in decisions affecting them. The report notes that states must take measures to prevent violence and the criminalisation of Indigenous Peoples who are exercising their rights to defend their lands and territories. Strengthening the regulation of private companies is essential.
In order to disseminate the Asia consultation report and strengthen the mandate’s engagement and exchanges with stakeholders, a series of webinars were held jointly with the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact (AIPP) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Bangkok Office in late 2020. Over 450 participants from across the Asian region participated.
Future thematic priorities
In terms of future thematic priorities, the Special Rapporteur will continue the focus on human rights concerns relating to land rights, the impact of COVID-19, attacks and criminalisation of Indigenous Peoples, conservation and climate change. The mandate will also explore issues that require additional attention, such as challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in urban areas, the impact of forced and bonded labour, and an analysis of how environmental and social impact assessments are carried out.
In March 2020, the Special Rapporteur Ms Tauli-Corpuz commenced an official country visit to Denmark and Greenland that unfortunately had to be interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As soon as public health conditions allow, Mr. Cali-Tzay intends to resume the visit, which will be his first official country visit as Special Rapporteur. The emphasis of the visit will be on human rights concerns relating to inter alia self-government, development, health, the situation of children and youth and also climate change impacts.
In September 2020, the report from the country visit undertaken to the Republic of the Congo in 2019 was presented to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The Special Rapporteur will continue to seek country visits to Asia and Africa and urges states in these regions to accept requests to visit officially.
During 2020, the Special Rapporteur issued more than 60 communications to over 28 states and other entities such as private corporations and intergovernmental organisations in response to information received on alleged violations of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. These communications on cases are included in the special procedures’ joint communications report, which is submitted to each session of the HRC, and in the special procedures communications database. The mandate also issued numerous press releases on cases of urgency or special concern.
Collaboration with other UN specialised agencies, regional human rights bodies and other activities
The Special Rapporteur continued his mandate’s collaboration with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). In November, he participated in the EMRIP seminar on the rights of the Indigenous child and in December he was a panellist at the Expert Group Meeting on pandemics organised by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
The Special Rapporteur maintained his engagement with various United Nations agencies with a view to promoting good practices in their work regarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples. He participated in meetings of the United Nations Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues (IASG) to further the integration of Indigenous issues into the UN system agenda and the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
During the second half of the year, he participated in several webinars held by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) on COVID-19 impacts and how to strengthen Indigenous Peoples’ inclusion in recovery measures. He also spoke at various events relating to racism and discrimination organised by UNESCO and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The mandate continued to collaborate with the human rights treaty bodies and special procedures. In November, the Special Rapporteur acted as a panellist at the session on Indigenous Peoples during the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.
In terms of cooperation with regional human rights mechanisms, at the request of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in April the mandate submitted written expert testimony on reparations in the Ogiek case (reparations). The Special Rapporteur furthermore participated in several events by regional organisations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, relating to Indigenous Peoples in isolation and COVID-19 impacts in the Americas. In December, he was invited to a webinar on human rights safeguards and the EU’s responsibilities, organised by the European Parliament.
The Special Rapporteur contributed to an event arranged by IWGIA on Indigenous Autonomy in November. He also acted as a panellist at a Forum organised by the International Commission of Jurists on issues relating to Indigenous, traditional and customary justice systems in December. Over the course of the past year, he continued to participate in meetings relating to the environment and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and also engaged in various activities related to Indigenous human rights defenders.
This article is part of the 35th 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 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 United Nations General Assembly. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of
indigenous peoples, José Francisco Calí Tzay.” Rights of Indigenous Peoples, A/75/185, 20 July 2020. https://www.undocs.org/en/A/75/185
 UN OHCHR. “Report on the impact of COVID-19 on the rights of indigenous peoples.” Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, 19 June 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/SRIndigenousPeoples/Pages/Callforinput_COVID19.aspx
 United Nations General Assembly. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.” Regional consultation on the rights of indigenous peoples in
 UN OHCHR. “The situation of indigenous peoples in Asia.” Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, 4 September 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/SRIndigenousPeoples/Pages/CallforinputIPAsia.aspx
UN OHCHR. “Call for inputs on upcoming country visit to Denmark and Greenland.” 2021. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/SRIndigenousPeoples/Pages/Callforinput_Denmark_Greenland.aspx
 For details of all communications issued and responses received by the mandate:
UN OHCHR. “Communication Report and Search.” 2021. https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TmSearch/Mandates?m=26
 UN OHCHR. “Communication Report and Search: Communication Search.” 2021. https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/Tmsearch/TMDocuments
 See UN OHCHR. “OHCHR Latest News.” 2021. www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/NewsSearch.aspx?MID=SR_Indigenous_People
 UN Human Rights Special Procedures. “United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Expert Testimony at the request of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights on reparations in the case of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights v. Kenya.” 006/2012, 29 April 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/IPeoples/SR/TestimonyOgiek.pdf