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Indigenous rights defenders at risk

Recent reports by UN experts and human rights organisations document an alarming increase in violent attacks against and criminalisation of indigenous peoples defending their rights to their traditional lands and natural resources.

Intensifying global competition over natural resources increasingly makes indigenous communities, who act to protect their traditional lands and territories, targets of persecution by State and non-State actors. Indigenous leaders and community members, who voice opposition to development or investment projects from extractive industries or large infrastructure projects like hydro-power are often subjected to criminalisation, harassment, threats, violent attacks and killings.

“I’ve been alerted to hundreds of cases of ‘criminalisation’ from nearly every corner of the world. These attacks – whether physical or legal – are an attempt to silence indigenous peoples voicing their opposition to projects that threaten their livelihoods and cultures,” UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Vicki Tauli-Corpuz.

Facts about indigenous rights defenders

  • A record 400 environmental and human rights defenders were killed in 2017 ̶  approximately half of these were indigenous peoples who died defending their land and rights.
  • Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines are the most dangerous countries for environmental and human rights defenders – according to the statistical data available.
  • Most of the killings of environmental and human rights defenders are related to land disputes over mega-projects and extractive industries.
  • An estimated 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed since 1998 (when the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted).

Meet Putla, a 75-year-old woman indigenous rights defenders from the Souy people in Cambodia and read about her struggle to defend the community's collective land rights >>

Indigenous peoples on the front line

Despite progress in recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights at the global level over the past 30 years, these achievements are in many cases not translated into local realities. According to the United Nations (UN), indigenous rights defenders are facing greater violations of their rights today than they were just a decade ago. Every year, thousands of indigenous peoples are criminalised and discriminated against – increasingly, this trend takes the highest toll of all: the life of indigenous rights defenders.

2017 was the deadliest year ever recorded for environmental and human rights defenders. Global Witness registered a fourfold increase between 2002 and 2017 with 207 environmental defenders killed in 2017; Front Line Defenders registered 312 killings of human rights defenders in 2017, up from 130 in 2014. Overall, more than 400 environmental and human rights defenders were killed in 2017 ̶ approximately half of these are estimated to be indigenous rights defenders.

However, this might only be the tip of the iceberg as these organisations primarily collect data where they have existing networks and since many indigenous peoples live in remote areas with limited contact to their surroundings. The real number can thus be several times higher as the rush for their land is increasing.

“The current pressure on indigenous peoples’ land and other natural resources is unprecedented in the 50 years IWGIA has worked with defending indigenous peoples’ rights,” IWGIA’s Executive Director Julie Koch explains. “We need to ensure that indigenous peoples are not discriminated against, harassed and unfairly criminalised and that State actors live up to their responsibilities and recognise indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination.”

A global crisis for indigenous rights defenders

The criminalisation of and discrimination against indigenous rights defenders has worsened over the last year, both in volume and regions affected. In August 2018, UN Special Rapporteur Vicki Tauli-Corpuz published a report >> where she raised her concerns over the unfolding of a ‘global crisis’. The report highlighted the correlation between the increase in violence, harassment and legal action against indigenous peoples, and the rise in private, commercial, profit-business initiatives aimed at extracting value from the land and resources traditionally occupied or shepherded by indigenous groups.

These findings are also supported by a report submitted to the UN General Assembly in 2016, where UN Special Rapporteur on human rights Michel Forst writes that “In almost every affected Latin American country, government and corporate actors are involved in the murders of environmental human rights defenders."

Read the statement from Michel Forst here >>

Most States recognise indigenous peoples’ rights

The recent negative development continues even though most States are committed by international conventions and treaties to respect and protect indigenous peoples living in their countries. Here are some of the most important:

A global effort is needed to support indigenous rights defenders

To address how we can tackle the criminalisation of indigenous peoples, IWGIA hosted an international conference entitled “Defending the Defenders: New alliances for protecting indigenous peoples’ rights” in September 2018.

The objectives of the conference were to gather a broad range of relevant actors (including indigenous rights defenders) to get a better understanding of the key drivers behind this alarming trend and identify possible actions at the international, regional and national levels that could help change the situation and protect indigenous rights defenders.

Read the recommendations from the conference here Outcome Document: Defending the Defenders

Focus in this year’s edition of The Indigenous World

The overall theme in The Indigenous World 2019 is the increased criminalisation of and discrimination against indigenous rights defenders. This one-of-a-kind book provides unique insights into the situation for indigenous peoples’ rights in 62 countries and recent developments in 13 international processes related to indigenous issues.

Read more about The Indigenous World 2019 and download the digital version for free here >>

IWGIA supports indigenous rights defenders

IWGIA is supporting indigenous peoples and collaborating with them to protect and defend their rights at the global and local level. One example of such collaboration is in Nepal, where we have collaborated with Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP) since 2013. IWGIA has supported LAHURNIP to set up a network of Indigenous Human Rights Defenders in all the regions of Nepal. Our collaboration has included capacity development in terms of documentation, community organising, lobby/advocacy of Indigenous Peoples Rights Defenders etc.

You can support indigenous peoples’ rights by supporting our work. IWGIA was founded in 1968 and is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. See how you can support us here >>


Tags: Land rights, Global governance, Human rights



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

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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