Autonomy of indigenous peoples: A pending issue for States

The implementation and exercise of autonomy, or self-determination of indigenous peoples, is still a pending issue on the part of the States. This was one of the points discussed in a virtual forum, in which members of international organizations including the UN participated.

Photo: Pablo Lasansky / IWGIA

Servindi, november 9, 2020.- The implementation of the right to autonomy or self-determination by indigenous peoples, with political, constitutional and legal recognition, is still an issue which has not been fully addressed by the States around the globe.

This was one of the conclusions of the virtual event:  Advancing in the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to autonomy and self-government: Building autonomies, Which was held on November 4th, 2020.

This seminar, organized by The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs ( IWGIA ) delved into the importance of continuing to advance –through national and international dialogues and mechanisms– in the recognition and exercise of the autonomy of indigenous peoples.

Organising the event was motivated based on the need for focus on the implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ right to autonomy and self-government which was identified in March 2019, where for the very first time, Indigenous Peoples from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Arctic met at a three-day conference in Mexico City to share, discuss and analyse their experiences with and developments of their Indigenous autonomy and self-government.

It was also the first time that representatives of Indigenous Peoples and international/regional human rights mechanisms relevant to the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights were able to meet and agree on common strategies to position the recognition of the right of Indigenous Peoples to autonomy and self-government as a central theme in their programmes of work and to identify specific actions required for implementation.

The meeting led to the preparation of multiple reports, together with the book Building autonomies , which contributes to the legitimization process on the recognition and exercise of this right.

Access the publication through the following link:

We must understand autonomy or self-determination as the right of peoples to decide their own forms of government in defense of their social, economic, political and educational development, among others.

Francisco Calí, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples spoke at the event. He specified that autonomy can not only be seen as a matter of ethnic identification:

“Self-determination must be based on the recognition of the lands or territory of the indigenous people,” he said.

Antonia Urrejola, vice president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), has the same opinion.

It affirms that one of the obligations of the States is to recognize self-determination together with the use and recognition of Indigenous territory.

Shapiom Noningo, technical secretary of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampís Nation (Peru), participated in the forum and argued in defense of that power.

He argued that the autonomies promoted by indigenous organizations in the world should be taken as a strength of those surrounding nations and as an aid to the national State.

Well, the intention of self-determination is not to destroy civil society, but rather to contribute to the progress of democracy in countries, he explained.

Implementation of autonomy

Jens Dahl, former member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, pointed out at the virtual event that three points need to be clarified for the implementation of autonomy.

The first is that indigenous people must and / or need to be recognized as such in their countries; the second involves being organized; and the third involves negotiating with the respective national states to which they belong.

On this last point, the importance of indigenous peoples having elected representatives, for example, in parliaments to facilitate ‘dialogue’ is highlighted.

Noningo states that, in order to carry out self-determination, it is necessary to provide technical support from the State, however, there are obstacles on the part of the State.

“When the self-determination of indigenous peoples is requested or practised, it is questioned by the State and even not respected.”

Calí’s comments explain in this way the real situation which is reflected in the Latin American cases.

In this regard, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, former UN Special Rapporteur for the rights of indigenous peoples, mentions specifically the case of Mexico.

“In this country there are Indigenous groups that have declared themselves autonomous and are in charge of various municipalities. However, the Government questioned this action, despite the fact that it is a right in the Mexican constitution”, says Tauli-Corpuz.

Due to this situation, she highlights that “autonomy and self-determination is something essential that States must do” and that it must be defended.

International jurisprudence with little precedent

Antonia Urrejola, in jurisprudential matters, argued that self-determination is a right that has not been fully developed by international human rights organizations.

Urrejola acknowledges that it was not until 2019 – as part of the IACHR’s thematic reports – that the rights to self-determination of indigenous peoples were explicitly addressed.

This forms a part of a jurisprudential evolution in the IACHR. From 2013 self-determination has been discussed, but only in relation to indigenous peoples in isolation or initial contact.

In years preceding these discussions there was a complete omission of this issue, although binding points such as prior consultation were addressed.

The conclusion of the Vice President of the IACHR is that there are structural problems on the part of the States and international bodies to deal with the implementation of indigenous peoples right to self-determination.



NOTA – A equipe do ECOAMAZÔNIA esclarece que o conteúdo e as opiniões expressas nos artigos são de responsabilidade do autor e não refletem necessariamente a opinião deste ‘site”.   

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