• The Australian Human Rights Commission and the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples put together a guide to the Declaration in 2010. (Riki Salam)Source: Riki Salam
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are part of a global community of more than 370 million Indigenous people spread across 70 countries. But who is considered Indigenous?
By
Karina Marlow

13 Sep 2016 - 4:56 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2016 - 4:56 PM

The United Nations recognises that this question is not an easy one to answer.

No official definition of ‘Indigenous’ has been adopted by the United Nations or any of its bodies as the diversity of Indigenous people includes a risk that some groups may be excluded.

Instead the focus is on self-identification, which is included in a number of other human rights documents. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has developed a collection of factors that can be considered to develop a modern understanding of just who is Indigenous.

These include:

  • Self-identification as an Indigenous person at an individual level and acceptance by the community as a member.
  • A continued existence beyond any colonial settlement
  • A strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form a minority group within society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities

These factors include groups from the Arctic: the Inuit and Aleutians of the polar region and the Saami of northern Europe, to the South Pacific: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand.

The factors recognise that many Indigenous communities have been affected by ‘conquest, occupation, settlement or other means’ and that these people groups ‘are the descendants… of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived.’

It also confirms that Indigenous people are the custodians of languages, beliefs, cultural practices and sustainable management of the environment stemming from a connection to the land.

Who was it created by?

The Declaration itself is a product of over 20 years of work by Indigenous people all over the world. The creation of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by the United Nations in 2000 helped to provide a platform for the identification of some key human rights that should be included.

Many meetings, drafting sessions, negotiations and lobbying for States to sign on to the Declaration followed and it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 13th of September 2007. Australia, along with New Zealand, Canada and the United States, voted against the Declaration on the day but it was later endorsed by the Rudd Government in 2009.

"It is a Declaration which combines our views and interests and which sets the framework for the future. It is a tool for peace and justice, based upon mutual recognition and mutual respect”.

Many Australians were involved in the negotiations process including Les Malezer, a Gubbi Gubbi and Butchulla man. Mr Malezar was the Chair of the Global Indigenous Caucus when the Declaration was officially adopted and was honoured to address the General Assembly on behalf of the Indigenous peoples of the world.

“Today’s adoption of the Declaration occurs because the United Nations and the Indigenous Peoples have found the common will to achieve this outcome…"

"It is a Declaration which combines our views and interests and which sets the framework for the future. It is a tool for peace and justice, based upon mutual recognition and mutual respect”.

What rights are given?

The Declaration contains 46 different articles that outline the rights given. These rights fall into eight different categories:

  • Self-determination and foundational rights
  • Life and security
  • Language and cultural and spiritual identity
  • Education, information and employment
  • Participation in decisions that affect us
  • Country, resources and knowledge
  • Self-governance, culture and cultural property
  • Implementing and interpreting the Declaration

The Australian Human Rights Commission together with the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples created a community guide to the Declaration in 2010 and a website to help Indigenous Australians to know their rights and ensure they are put into practice.   

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda explains “it is using the Declaration that breathes life into it. As an international instrument, the Declaration provides a blueprint for Indigenous peoples and governments around the world, based on the principles of self-determination and participation, to respect the rights and roles of Indigenous peoples within society.”

Key rights

Self-determination: Article 3

Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

No forced assimilation: Article 8(1)

Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.

Revitalise culture: Article 11(1)

Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

Media: Article 16(1)

Indigenous peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-Indigenous media without discrimination.

Decision-making: Article 18

Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own Indigenous decision making institutions.

Health: Article 24(2)

Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States shall take the necessary steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of this right.

Lands and Resources: Article 26(1)

Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.

Conservarion: Article 29(1)

Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for Indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.

Identity: Article 33(1)

Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of Indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.

Treaties: Article 37(1)

Indigenous peoples have the right to the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements concluded with States or their successors and to have States honour and respect such treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.

Why we’re celebrating a groundbreaking declaration
Commentary by Robynne Quiggin, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Deputy Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice.

All images are taken from the 2010 Community Guide to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the National Congress for Australia's First Peoples and produced by Gilimbaa Pty Ltd, an Indigenous creative agency.