The Indigenous World 2022: UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples is one of the 58 “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; to examine ways and means of overcoming existing obstacles to the full and effective protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples; to promote best practices; to gather and exchange information from all relevant sources on violations of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples; and to formulate recommendations and proposals on measures and activities to prevent and remedy violations of those rights.
On 1 May 2020, Mr. Francisco Calí 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.
During 2021, the Special Rapporteur continued to carry out work within the principal mandated areas: the promotion of 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.
2021 thematic studies
Each year, the Special Rapporteur presents two thematic reports, one to the Human Rights Council and one to the General Assembly.
The thematic study submitted to the Human Rights Council in September 2021 was on the impact of State COVID-19 recovery measures on Indigenous Peoples. It follows up on the thematic report presented to the General Assembly in 2020 on the global impacts of the pandemic on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The report notes that State COVID-19 recovery measures negatively and disproportionately impact Indigenous Peoples. In many cases, recovery laws have been primarily geared towards managing the economic crisis and prioritizing and supporting the expansion of business operations at the expense of Indigenous Peoples, their lands and the environment. In many countries, security of land tenure is more of a concern for Indigenous Peoples than the virus itself. During the pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in illegal deforestation, land incursions and violence with little government aid or oversight. Emergency orders continue to accelerate resource exploration and extraction while stalling demarcation and official recognition of Indigenous lands. Government efforts to control illegal incursions into Indigenous territories have been reduced but amnesties for illegal logging, fishing and gold prospecting, along with industrial and commercial projects, continue or have escalated.
Indigenous Peoples have been severely and disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and face higher risks of infection and death, especially as new variants of the virus continue to emerge. Despite their increased vulnerability to the virus, vaccine roll-out for Indigenous Peoples, in particular those living in remote areas, has not been prioritized in most countrie
Indigenous Peoples continue to be subjected to forced evictions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The enforcement of COVID-19 measures has been used to strengthen authoritarian, militarized responses that criminalize Indigenous human rights defenders. Peaceful protests are being restricted while the expansion, construction and operation of commercial and extractive industries continues in order to promote economic recovery.
Indigenous Peoples have shown great resilience and collective strength during the pandemic and are revitalizing cultural practices as part of their successful measures to combat COVID-19. These initiatives should receive support from State reconstruction and recovery processes, so that Indigenous Peoples can restore traditional livelihoods and economies to sustain their communities.
Worldwide, Indigenous communities have taken action to overcome insufficient national COVID-19 information campaigns by governments. Education campaigns in Indigenous languages have been conducted through print, radio and social media to inform the community about vaccine effectiveness and limitations and address the spread of misinformation.
Protection of Indigenous territories is central, as it not only helps Indigenous Peoples to recover from the health crisis but also promotes food security and sustainable livelihoods, increasing resilience in the face of future pandemics. The report recommends greater inclusion and participation of Indigenous Peoples in the recovery process in order to address their rights and unique needs and calls for increased support for Indigenous-led initiatives to sustain their cultures and economies in the COVID- 19 recovery period. Indigenous Peoples must be involved in the planning and implementation of COVID-19 recovery measures that affect them.
The thematic study presented to the General Assembly in October 2021 was dedicated to the challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples living in urban areas. The report explored the specific causes and consequences of urbanization and the initiatives undertaken by Indigenous Peoples and States to address the rights and specific needs of Indigenous Peoples.
A significant number of the world’s Indigenous Peoples live in urban environments, and there is a need to tackle issues of poverty, racism and marginalization and to strengthen support for those peoples. Urban migration may occur when Indigenous Peoples move to urban areas in search of employment and education opportunities, but also as a result of forced evictions, militarization, political instability and armed conflict. Extractive activities and development projects are leading push factors driving Indigenous Peoples to urbanize as their land rights are being undermined by intensified pressure from State policies that favor the escalation of large-scale projects for extractive industries. The adverse effects of climate change, including wildfires, deforestation, drought and rising sea levels are further exacerbating the migration and urbanization of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples often end up in precarious housing in the poorest urban areas, prone to natural disasters and environmental pollution.
Urbanization provides opportunities but often also entails poverty, stigmatization and discrimination. Indigenous Peoples commonly live in marginalized urban areas in which their rights and cultural needs are not effectively addressed by public policies or urban planning. Indigenous Peoples who voluntarily relocate, or are forcibly relocated, to urban areas encounter barriers to accessing adequate health care, safe drinking water and sanitation, culturally-appropriate education, employment opportunities and adequate housing.
Indigenous Peoples living in urban areas continue to experience the legacy of colonization and intergenerational trauma and face a unique set of challenges to their sense of identity, culture and connection to lands and resources. The report notes that it is imperative to pay special attention to the rights of groups at risk among Indigenous Peoples living in urban centers. Indigenous women and girls who migrate to urban areas are at increased risk of people trafficking, forced labor, prostitution, sexual exploitation and gender-based violence. Indigenous children living in these areas equally face barriers – they continue to be removed from their families and communities through State child welfare systems and are at greater risk of domestic servitude and forced labor.
Despite all the challenges, Indigenous Peoples are resilient, adapting to urban life and forging new paths, often with the help of Indigenous-led initiatives. State authorities should take measures to support the initiatives developed by Indigenous Peoples themselves. The report further recommends the adoption of legislation, policies and programs, in consultation with the Indigenous communities concerned, to provide collective protection mechanisms for Indigenous Peoples living in urban areas.
In December 2021, the Special Rapporteur conducted an official country visit to Costa Rica. During the visit, the Special Rapporteur expressed his concern over the more than 40 years of non-compliance by the State of Costa Rica with its obligation to return Indigenous lands belonging to eight Indigenous Peoples across the country. He expressed concern for the various attacks against human rights defenders, including Indigenous leaders who suffer intimidation and death threats in the context of defending their lands, territories and natural resources. In most cases, the underlying cause is the lack of land tenure security of Indigenous communities. He expressed worry at the lack of progress in the judicial processes concerning the killings of the two Indigenous leaders Sergio Rojas in 2019 and Jhery Rivera in 2020, beneficiaries of IACHR precautionary measures in 2015.
The Special Rapporteur received information on the lack of due consultation with Indigenous Peoples in the definition of protected areas and their management. He was also able to observe the significant discrimination and poverty that Indigenous Peoples suffer in the country, which impact their access to justice, education, health and political participation. The Special Rapporteur noted the multiple forms of discrimination suffered by Indigenous women and recommended that the State remove the obstacles women face to effective political participation and access to health care with an intercultural approach.
The Special Rapporteur invited the State to solve the land issue as soon as possible and create the conditions for a constructive dialogue in good faith with Indigenous Peoples in order to develop a comprehensive, participatory legislative reform in accordance with international human rights standards. In particular, he pointed out the need for constitutional recognition of the existence of Indigenous Peoples and their legal personality. Calí Tzay encouraged the continuation of the process of elaborating a policy on access to justice for Indigenous Peoples in accordance with international standards and to address structural forms of discrimination. While the Special Rapporteur welcomed the fact that the government has adopted a consultation mechanism in accordance with international human rights standards, he invited the Legislative Assembly and the Judiciary to develop their own consultation procedures with the participation of Indigenous Peoples.
In 2022, the Special Rapporteur hopes to conclude the official country visit to Denmark and Greenland. This was initiated by his predecessor in March 2020 but had to be interrupted due to COVID-19. He also expects to carry out a country visit to Chad, which has accepted his request to visit.
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.
Communications and press releases
During 2021, the Special Rapporteur issued more than 75 communications to States and other entities, such as private corporations and intergovernmental organizations, 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, submitted to each session of the Human Rights Council, and are publicly available online in the special procedures communications database.
The mandate also issued numerous press releases on cases of urgency or special concern. Examples include press releases expressing concern over a broad range of issues, including for example: oil pollution in Peru and mercury levels in Brazil; continued criminalization of Indigenous human rights defenders in the Philippines, Guatemala and Honduras; and land-grabbing and planned tourism projects on Indigenous lands in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Concerns were also publicly expressed at the finding of mass graves of Indigenous children in Canada, attacks on Indigenous Peoples during peaceful protests in Myanmar and Colombia, and at the impact of conservation measures on Indigenous Peoples in Thailand.
Collaboration with UN specialized entities, regional human rights bodies and other activities
The Special Rapporteur continued the mandate’s collaboration with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). In December 2021, he participated in the EMRIP seminar on treaties and constructive agreements and submitted written information for the Expert Group Meeting of the UNPFII on Indigenous Peoples, business and autonomies.
The Special Rapporteur maintained 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 Peoples’ Issues (IASG) to further the integration of Indigenous issues into the UN system’s agenda and the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Special Rapporteur addressed, for the first time, a session of the UNESCO Heritage Committee in July 2021 during their consideration of nominated heritage sites. He participated in person at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseilles in September 2021.
The mandate continued to collaborate with the human rights treaty bodies and special procedures. In June 2021, the Special Rapporteur participated in the CEDAW Day of General Discussion on the rights of Indigenous women and girls.
In terms of cooperation with regional human rights mechanisms, in May 2021 the mandate submitted written expert testimony to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights at the request of the petitioners in the case of the Maya Kaqchikel Indigenous Peoples of Sumpango and Others vs. Guatemala. The Special Rapporteur contributed to an event arranged by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and IWGIA on Indigenous autonomy in March 2021.
During the past year, he continued to participate in meetings relating to the environment and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and he also engaged in various activities related to Indigenous human rights defenders.
Christine Evans and José Parra support the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Seanna Howard and Elisa Marchi, both based at the University of Arizona, Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program provided external support for the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.
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
 United Nations. OHCHR. “Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.” https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/SRIndigenousPeoples/Pages/SRIPeoplesIndex.aspx
 “United Nations. A/HRC/48/54. General Assembly. 6 August 2021. Human Rights Council. Forty-eighth session. 13 September–1 October 2021. Agenda item 3. Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. Indigenous peoples and coronavirus disease (COVID-19) recovery. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, José Francisco Calí Tzay*.” https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/48/54
 “United Nations. A/75/185. General Assembly. 20 July 2020. Seventy-fifth session. Item 72 (b) of the provisional agenda*. Promotion and protection of human rights: human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms Rights of indigenous peoples Note by the Secretary-General.” https://undocs.org/A/75/185
 “United Nations. A/76/202 General Assembly. 21 July 2021. Seventy-sixth session. Item 75 (b) of the provisional agenda*. Promotion and protection of human rights: human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms Rights of indigenous peoples. Note by the Secretary-General..” https://undocs.org/A/76/202
United Nations. OHCHR. “Costa Rica: Urgent reforms needed on indigenous peoples' rights, says UN expert.” December 17, 2021. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=28000&LangID=E
United Nations. OHCHR. “End of mission statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco Calí Tzay at the conclusion of his visit to Costa Rica.” https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=27997&LangID=E
 For details of all communications issued and responses received by the mandate: United Nations. OHCHR. “Communication report and search.” https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TmSearch/Mandates?m=26
 United Nations. OHCHR. “Communication report and search.” https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/Tmsearch/TMDocuments
 See all press releases: United Nations. OHCHR. “OHCHR Latest News.” www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/NewsSearch.aspx?MID=SR_Indigenous_People
 United Nations. Human Righs Council. Special Procedures. “United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Francisco Calí Tzay. Expert Testimony at the request of the petitioners in the case of the Maya Kaqchikel Indigenous Peoples of Sumpango and Others vs. Guatemala. Inter-American Court of Human Rights Case No. CDH-3-2020. 24 May 2021.” https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/IPeoples/SR/ExpertTestimonyCourt_EN.pdf
Tags: Global governance