The key international human rights document that related to Indigenous people is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007. Only four countries – Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States – refused to sign. Australia subsequently endorsed it in 2009 but it remains symbolic until its principles are implemented into domestic laws.
Some of the central principles contained in the Declaration concern:
- non-discrimination and fundamental rights, self-determination (including autonomy and participation rights)
- cultural integrity
- rights to lands, territories and natural resources
- other rights relating to socio-economic welfare.
One of the key principles in the Declaration, for which Indigenous peoples consistently fought, is Article 3 on the collective right to self-determination and it mirrors the language of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.
Article 4 states that Indigenous peoples have ‘the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions’. While Indigenous peoples ‘have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions’ they retain ‘their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State’.
With respect to participation, Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that would affect their rights, through their chosen representatives (Article 18). More specifically, law and policy-makers are required to engage in good faith consultation with Indigenous peoples with the aim of obtaining their ‘free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them’ (Article 19).
In particular, Indigenous peoples are entitled to be ‘actively involved in developing and determining health, housing and other economic and social programmes affecting them and, as far as possible, to administer such programs through their own institutions’ (Article 23). Indigenous peoples are entitled to ‘determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures’ (Art 33(2)). States are required, in consultation with Indigenous peoples, to take appropriate measures (including national legislation) to achieve the goals of the Declaration, and to provide Indigenous peoples with access to financial and technical assistance for the enjoyment of the rights contained in it (Articles 38-39).