In This Article Indigenous Peoples

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference Works
  • Regional and Comparative Approaches
  • Definition, “Indigenism,” and the Indigenous Rights Movement
  • Colonization, Historical Claims, and Reparations
  • Self-Determination, Sovereignty, and Collective Rights
  • Land Rights and Natural Resources
  • Globalization, Development, and the Environment

International Law Indigenous Peoples
Jérémie Gilbert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0110


The rights of indigenous peoples under international law have evolved greatly since the late 1980s. Efforts by indigenous peoples to get their rights recognized under international law started during the League of Nations in the early 1920s, but it was only in 2007 that the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The adoption of the Declaration not only marks an important moment in terms of lawmaking; it also represents the achievement of long decades of lobbying and advocacy from indigenous peoples’ representatives. The UN declared the decade 1994–2004 as the First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and later 2005–2015 was declared the second such decade. The main objective was the strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, education, and health. As a result, in 2002, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was established as an advisory body to the UN Economic and Social Council. But it was only in 2007 that the UN General Assembly adopted the UNDRIP, which universally proclaims and consolidates a specific international legal corpus of rights for indigenous peoples. The adoption of the Declaration is representative of the significant legal developments that took place during the period from 1989 until 2007, which arguably saw the development of a very large body of international law dedicated to the rights of indigenous peoples. The international legal framework developed for and by indigenous peoples concerns general human rights such as nondiscrimination and equality, as well as very specific collective rights such as self-determination, cultural rights, land rights, and control over natural resources. The establishment of a specific corpus of law dedicated to the rights of indigenous peoples, or sui generis rights, has also meant a proliferation of scholarly literature in the last decades. The following entry does not propose to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but rather to offer a review of some of the texts that can guide the researcher or the reader through the vast and extensive existing legal literature. First, it focuses on some of the leading sources that provide a general overview on the rights of indigenous peoples. It then examines the institutional and regional approaches. And finally, it focuses on specific issues affecting indigenous peoples, namely historical claims, self-determination, land rights, natural resources, and development.

General Overviews and Reference Works

The literature regarding the rights of indigenous peoples is often very specialized either in terms of its focus on specific rights (Venne 1998, Price Cohen 1998, Alfredsson and Stravropoulou 2002), or in terms of its geographical scope (Richardson, et al. 2009). There are, however, a few texts that should be seen as essential general references, namely Anaya 2004 and Thornberry 2002. See also Kingsbury 2001 and Castellino and Walsh 2005.

  • Alfredsson, Gudmundur, and Maria Stravropoulou, eds. Justice Pending: Indigenous People and Other Good Causes—Essays in Honour of Erica-Irene A.Daes. Raoul Wallenberg Institute Human Rights Library. The Hague and New York: Martinus Nijhoff, 2002.

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    This Festschrift, honoring the work of Erica Daes, provides a relevant source on indigenous rights at the international legal level. The range of topics covered is extremely wide and provides a great source of primary materials. The annex contains several of the key UN documents developed by Daes over the years, including her key studies on land rights.

  • Anaya, James. Indigenous Peoples under International Law. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    This book is probably one of the most influential monographs on the issue. The author examines the history of international law regarding indigenous peoples to explain the contemporary legal system and its impact on indigenous peoples. The book is full of essential references, and it should be seen as an essential read on the issue.

  • Castellino, Joshua, and Niamh Walsh, eds. International Law and Indigenous Peoples. Leiden, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 2005.

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    This edited collection offers some focus on international institutions, and notably a rare and excellent chapter on the place of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (pp. 77–88). The book also focuses on national situations and how international law interacts (or not) on these situations.

  • Kingsbury, Benedict. “Reconciling Five Competing Conceptual Structures of Indigenous Peoples’ Claims in International and Comparative Law.” New York University Journal of International Law and Politics (2001)

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    This article represents an extremely enlightening review on the rights of indigenous peoples and their place within the overall international human rights system. The aim of the article is to review the conceptual foundations on which indigenous peoples’ legal claim can rest. While written before the adoption of the UNDRIP, this article remains extremely relevant in its analysis of the different legal frameworks available to indigenous peoples’ claims.

  • Price Cohen, Cynthia, ed. The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ardlsey, NY: Transnational Publishers, 1998.

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    This edited collection, focusing on the human rights of indigenous peoples, was published in 1998, before some of the most groundbreaking and recent developments that took place under international law. Nonetheless, for being a precursor, this book remains a “classic,” since it examines some of the key issues relating to the relationship between international law, human rights law, and indigenous peoples’ rights.

  • Richardson, Benjamin J., Shin Imai, and Kent McNeil, eds. Indigenous Peoples and the Law: Comparative and Critical Perspectives. Oxford: Hart, 2009.

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    This is a collective book published in 2009 with the aim of “taking stock” of the place of indigenous peoples’ rights within the national sphere, and it also provides some comparative analysis. While it focuses mainly on the situation of indigenous communities in the Commonwealth, and predominately Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, it also focuses on international themes.

  • Thornberry, Patrick. Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights. Melland Schill Studies in International Law. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719037931.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This book presents an extremely rich and complete approach to the rights of indigenous peoples under human rights law. It focuses on the evolution, the content, and the place of the rights of indigenous peoples under human rights law. The book is extremely rich in references and analysis, and it should be seen as an essential reference on the issue.

  • Venne, Sharon Helen. Our Elders Understand Our Rights: Evolving International Law Regarding Indigenous Peoples. Penticton, BC: Theytus, 1998.

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    This book offers a compelling analysis on the evolution of international law. It includes a thorough review of the “doctrine of discovery” and its impact on indigenous peoples’ rights. It provides some relevant analysis on the evolution of international law, notably by taking a critical view of the place of indigenous peoples within the international legal architecture.

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