23 February 2012

Indigenous peoples


Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

According to the United Nations (UN), there are at least 5,000 indigenous groups composed of 300 million people living in more than 70 countries on five continents (1). Their economic, social, religious, and cultural life is very dependent on the traditional environment in which they live – an environment that is often under threat from dominant and exploitative groups.

As a policy the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) supports the principles of the Draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 1994 (1). IFSW derives its mandate for engagement with indigenous peoples from the Charter of the United Nations, which states “We the peoples…reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person (and) promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” (2). In September 2000 at the United Nations Millennium Summit, world leaders reaffirmed those principles by pledging to reduce poverty and promote human rights and democratic governance at both national and global levels. They declared the most pressing challenge of the new century to be the need for a more inclusive and equitable globalization that allows poor people to participate as full partners in the global economy.

Millennium Development Goals were developed to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and ensure environmental sustainability (3). All 191 UN member states have pledged to address the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Ensuring the engagement of indigenous peoples and their organizations is critical in preventing and resolving conflicts, enhancing democratic governance, reducing poverty and sustainable management of the environment. Realizing these goals is the focus of the Fourth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (4).

Indigenous peoples are frequently not members of the dominant, majority groups. They may be hidden or invisible in many large cities around the world and in some cases indigenous peoples live in a condition of exile in their own homelands. Although some indigenous groups may consider themselves “nations”, they have no status as states and often have no voice through their governments. In many parts of the world, the cultures and languages of indigenous peoples are disappearing (5). Often this is due to a deliberate and systematic violation of their rights as powerful interests overwhelm and exploit resources with little concern for indigenous groups.

The Covenant of the League of Nations referred to non self-governing or colonized peoples as “indigenous peoples”. In the 1950s the ILO began referring to the problems of the “indigenous population in independent countries,” which is to say culturally and geographically distinct communities that were non self-governing, marginalized, and colonized inside the borders of independent states.

UN and human rights bodies, the ILO, World Bank and the international law apply four criteria to distinguish indigenous peoples:

  • They live within (or maintain attachments to) geographically distinct ancestral territories.
  • They tend to maintain distinct social, economic and political institutions within their territories.
  • They typically aspire to remain distinct culturally, geographically and institutionally, rather than assimilate fully into national society.
  • They self-identify as indigenous or tribal.

The international human rights of indigenous peoples have been the focus of several UN conventions to protect the multifaceted needs and rights of the indigenous. A 1989 UN convention recognized that international standards for human rights included indigenous peoples, and sought to re-adapt international standards set down in 1957, as much development had occurred in relation to indigenous peoples and international law. This convention recognized that many indigenous peoples do not live at the same standard as other peoples within the nation states they inhabit, and that their laws, traditions and viewpoints had been disrespected. It also sought to bring attention to the indigenous peoples’ desire for control over their traditions and institutions, and to maintain their own separate identity, languages, religious practices and economic development. In this context the importance of transferring power, self-rule and autonomy to indigenous peoples cannot be over-emphasized.

To further this discourse, the United Nations created a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that sought to ensure cooperation between governments, the United Nations and indigenous peoples and also to serve as a conduit between these parties. The Third Forum that met in May of 2004 – and highlighted the close of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004) – focused on the Special Needs of Indigenous Women. Topics addressed were female literacy rates, which affect child mortality rates more than those of indigenous males, and the exploitation of indigenous women due to loss of lands. Many indigenous women and children have become sex workers under duress after displacement from their territories and lack of opportunities in rural areas to earn a living. In addition the “export” of indigenous women and children as part of the global sex trade is a particularly pernicious consequence of this inequity (6).

In some populations, indigenous women have found their status reduced from that of equals – the norm within their culture – to subservient, exploited workers after their lands have been colonized and developed for business ventures. The Forum also looked at indigenous women’s traditional cultural role as mediators and peacemakers. Indigenous peoples – and in particular indigenous women – often portrayed negatively as victims and passive recipients of services – need the barriers that impede their full participation in the economic and social life of their respective countries removed (6).

These conventions and forums are part of an ongoing process that attempts to locate the issues of indigenous peoples within the larger theme of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” which by definition incorporates the indigenous peoples of the world. The Declaration further states: “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.” (7). This provides protections for indigenous peoples from colonialist endeavours that strip them of land and dignity, and reduce women and children to exploitative situations in order to survive.

Despite the positive intention of this doctrine, indigenous peoples unfortunately are still oppressed. As “[n]o one shall be held in slavery or servitude; (and as) slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms,” the increase in sex work among indigenous women and children is a special cause for concern. Also, as children so often bear the brunt of social upheaval as victims of family violence, the needs and protection of indigenous children must also be considered (6).

Indigenous Peoples and Social Work Principles
Preservation of human rights is a keystone of the social work profession. These basic rights go beyond the dialogue of civil rights and civil liberties for many indigenous peoples. For far too many, it is a struggle to survive with diminished social and economic justice. As a profession, social work must respect the dignity and inherent worth of all persons and peoples. Social workers ought to work to preserve each person’s well-being, be it physical, economic, psychological, emotional or spiritual. Social workers have the responsibility to work for social justice in all cases (8).

Social workers strive to ensure the innate and unique human rights of each individual, with an aim to aid the oppressed. This emphasis on respect for individuals must be carried over to respect for nations and/or peoples. Social workers should be trained to be culturally competent, whilst working with various populations that are often oppressed by the greater national/state culture. These same people are often linguistic, ethnic and/or religious minorities. Social workers assigned to work with indigenous populations can carry over those skills and experiences when engaging with these cultures. A review of recent social work literature reflects a new emphasis on cultural competence over cultural sensitivity (9). This reinforces the idea that social workers must have cultural knowledge of the communities they serve in order to provide the most appropriate assistance or support available.

Social work literature, particularly that used in the training of social workers should be diversified and reflect literature produced in non-European settings by authors of colour and indigenous social workers. (9). Social workers should not assume that western/colonial ideals, or the norms of the present-day dominant cultures, best serve the indigenous populations, but instead listen to what the communities see as a problem and the relevant ways of addressing it. (9, 10). Indigenous social workers can play an essential role in defining problems and developing solutions for indigenous peoples. Social workers believe that each individual has the right to self-fulfillment, and by extension, so do all peoples and nations. These beliefs originate from a professional respect for human life and the basic human rights of individuals and groups expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (7). These principles have important application to indigenous peoples as they are frequently oppressed, disenfranchised populations.


IFSW recognizes that human rights are fundamental for all persons, as individuals and within collectives.

  • Indigenous persons and groups are entitled to these fundamental human rights.
  • As oppressed indigenous groups, they are to be given special consideration, based upon an understanding of the conditions that have led to their displacement and economical upheaval, as well as the loss of their political and social rights and human dignity.
  • IFSW affirms that indigenous peoples are entitled to rights and dignities equal to all other peoples.
  • All peoples have the right to be different and consider themselves unique.
  • All peoples, despite these differences, have the right to be treated free of prejudice that is based upon national origin, race, ethnicity, and/or religion.
  • Those policies that do not respect these rights to equality are racist, socially unjust and scientifically false.

IFSW believes that international social and economic policy must reflect these human rights and protect all peoples.

  • Indigenous peoples must be actively involved participants in the creation of international policies, especially those affecting them.
  • Social and economic policies must acknowledge and incorporate the diverse and/or unique needs of indigenous peoples (while avoiding any tendency towards apartheid).
  • All those who use the indigenous customary knowledge should include measures that promote, protect and recognize this knowledge as the intellectual and cultural property of the indigenous peoples.

IFSW advocates discussion and agreement between governments, the United Nations and indigenous peoples.

  • The United Nations and governments at all levels must take into account the rights and needs of indigenous peoples when planning and developing economic and developmental policy.
  • The United Nations and governments at all levels must fully involve indigenous peoples in developing policies that affect themselves and their lands.
  • The United Nations and governments at all levels must promote and respect the unique traditions, languages and religions of each indigenous nation within their state.

IFSW affirms the trend that indigenous peoples are organizing themselves to regain their rightful places and protest against further discrimination by governing states, and emphasizes the need for non-indigenous peoples to act in solidarity with them in tackling discrimination.

  • The interests of the indigenous have been historically undervalued and/or ignored and at times deliberately marginalized by the State and other interests.
  • Organizations of indigenous peoples may serve to bring forth political, economic, social and political change and an end to discrimination.
  • Each indigenous individual has a right to a national identity and a nationality and sympathetic consideration in cases of asylum.
  • Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their distinct political, economic, social, cultural and legal systems, while maintaining a right to participate in these systems within the State (1).
  • Indigenous social workers should take the lead in development initiatives and services for indigenous peoples.

IFSW recognizes and acknowledges the special struggles of indigenous women.

  • Policy must not reduce the dignity of indigenous peoples and especially women in particular as they are most often severely affected by the economic shift of power and/or cultural colonization.
  • Governments must be vigilant and seek to avoid the exploitation of indigenous women, and create policies that would prevent economic development from encroaching upon their basic human rights and dignities due to economic loss.
  • The increase of indigenous women and children entering the sex trade and the trafficking in ‘slavery’ must be reduced through greater governmental and United Nations intervention and effective policies.
  • Social workers must take direct responsibility in countering the sexual exploitation of indigenous women.

IFSW seeks to understand the situation of indigenous children, support their rights, and advocate for their needs (11, 12).

  • Indigenous children have the right to a primary school education as articulated in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (3). Many indigenous children are employed in agriculture and factories around the world that prevents them from attending school on a regular basis.
  • Social workers should advocate for children who are more at risk of suffering family violence when there is economic stress, dispossession, and a breakdown in community ties – factors that many indigenous communities face.
  • When indigenous children are placed in the public child welfare system, social workers must strive to make decisions that benefit children in the long run (13).
  • Social workers must work with indigenous communities to assist vulnerable children using holistic and culturally appropriate problem-solving methods within the community.
  • The increase of indigenous children entering the slave trade and sexual trafficking must be stopped through greater governmental and United Nations awareness and effective policies.
  • Adoption of indigenous children by childless parents of the industrial states must reflect the right to self-determination of indigenous parents, as well as well as the rights of indigenous children.
  • Whenever possible, the perspective and value system of the indigenous culture must be promoted while guaranteeing children protection from violence.


1. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/2/Add.1 (1994), www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/declra.htm, cited July 7, 2004.

2. Charter of the United Nations (1945), www.un.org/aboutun/charter/

3. United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000), www.un.org/millenniumgoals/

4. Fourth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2005), www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/news/news_2.htm

5. The Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1997), www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/2/fs9.htm

6. Third Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2004), www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/doc_third_statemts.htm

7. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), www.un.org/Overview/rights.html, cited July 7, 2004.

8. Proposal for a new Ethical Document, IFSW General Meeting 2004, cited July 7, 2004.

9. Weaver, H. N. (1999, May). Indigenous peoples and the social work profession: Defining culturally competent services. Social Work, 44(3): 217-225.

10. Krech, P. R., (2002, March). Envisioning a healthy future: A re-becoming of Native American men. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 24(1): 77-95.

11. International Federation of Social Workers: Social Work and the Rights of the Child. Berne, 2002.

12. Weaver, H. N. & White, B. J. (1999). Protecting the future of indigenous children and nations: an examination of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Journal of Health and Social Policy, 10(4): 35-50.

13. Wares, D. M., Wedel, K. R., Rosenthal, J. A., & Dobrec, A. (1994). Indian child welfare: A multicultural challenge. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 3(3), 1-15.

Note: All journal articles listed in the reference sections were authored by Native American social workers.

(Policy Statement approved at the IFSW Executive Meeting, Washington, DC, USA, May 2, 2005)