Survival Alert: A 20-Year Delay in Calling Tribal Peoples’ Magic Number

The International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 is a step ahead for the recognition of indigenous human rights. Why don’t we take it?

hunter-gatherer Penan in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo

The hunter-gatherer Penan in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, are just one of many tribes affected by ILO Convention 169. (Photo: Copyright Robin Hanbury-Tenison/Survival)

Survival Alert is a fortnightly update on the state of indigenous peoples around the world from Survival International. Founded in 1969, Survival International is the globe’s foremost organization working for tribal peoples rights.


ILO Convention 169 may not mean very much to most of us, but to the world’s 150 million tribal people, it is probably the most important law in the world, for it recognizes some of their fundamental human rights.

Drawn up by the International Labour Organization more than 20 years ago, the law has been ratified by only 22 countries to date. At this rate, it will be another 170 years before every country has backed the Convention. Tribal and indigenous people around the world cannot, and should not, have to wait that long.

Support for the basic rights ILO Convention 169 advocates for tribal and indigenous people has been abysmal. Sixty countries house the world’s indigenous people, and countless global corporations pursue business interests on the land where their homes are built. The majority of the so-called developed world rides roughshod over tribal lands and human rights.

MORE: Do Tribal People Have a Future? Exclusive Q&A

ILO 169 is a crucial tool in changing these attitudes. It is the only international law designed to protect tribal peoples by recognizing their right to land ownership, equality, and consultation over decisions involving their land. Sadly, whilst the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People recognizes these rights and sets a necessary international standard, the U.N. declaration is not legally binding.

Incidentally, the U.S. was the last member of the U.N. to endorse this “aspirational” declaration.  Most countries supported the measure when it was first published in 2007, but Canada and the U.S. dragged their feet for another three years.

At the time, Survival welcomed news that the Rights of Indigenous People had been taken up by the world assembly. It was a significant step toward a universal acceptance that tribal peoples’ lives and ways of living are just as valuable as anyone else’s.

In effect, this admission is the same as saying: “We don’t think German companies in tribal areas abide by this law, so we’d better not ratify it.”

President Barack Obama said in December 2010, “What matters far more than words—what matters far more than any resolution or declaration—are actions to match those words.”

Two years later, have these promising words been matched? The U.S. still refuses to ratify ILO 169.

It appears that countries will proudly support human rights for all—if a declaration backs those ideals. But once commitments become legally binding, there is a painful reluctance. The U.K. and Germany are two recent examples of this.

In the past few months, both governments have rejected ILO 169 for equally revealing reasons.

Germany’s ruling party told Survival it could not sign the Convention because it makes a German company responsible for its activities on tribal lands. This admission has appalling implications. In effect, it is the same as saying: “We don’t think German companies in tribal areas abide by this law, so we’d better not ratify it.”

ILO 169 defines only the U.N.’s minimum standards, and sets out the least that should be done to protect tribal people from the harmful interference of outsiders. Companies unwilling to comply with these standards should not be in tribal areas at all, not only for the sake of tribal peoples, but for themselves as well.

For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has guidelines for multinational companies that now include “human rights due diligence.” No company whose operations may affect a tribal community can claim to have done due diligence if it does not measure its plans against 169. Ratifying the Convention would remind a country’s corporations of what due diligence actually is.        

Germany’s response makes a strong business case for ratification (a point which the ILO itself has made on several occasions). Far from being hindered by ratification, a company’s ability to demonstrate that it complies with 169 is its best safeguard against a legal challenge. 

The U.K.’s rationale for snubbing ratification was equally dismaying. Prime Minister David Cameron defended his position by saying the law could not be implemented, “as the U.K. has no indigenous people to whom the Convention can apply.” However, two other countries, Spain and the Netherlands, ratified the law despite being in a similar position.

What is even more baffling is the fact that the overseas work of U.K. companies is known to have a major impact on tribal and indigenous people around the world. U.K. MP Martin Horwood, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for tribal peoples, openly criticized Mr. Cameron, saying the Prime Minister’s decision, “completely underestimated the importance and impact U.K. ratification would have had on U.K. companies, on U.K. policy and on the international community.”

ILO 169 lies at the heart of indigenous and tribal peoples’ futures. Governments must remember that it is not just a law for tribal peoples; it is a law for everyone. It plays a key role in saving the world’s rainforests, putting control of the land back in the hands of the people who have looked after it for generations, and forcing businesses to respect human rights.

After all, it is no coincidence that so much of the world’s remaining rainforests and biodiversity are on tribal peoples’ lands.

Please help by taking action: Urge your government to ratify ILO 169.

How can government’s role be shifted from protecting business to championing human rights? Leave some plans of action in COMMENTS.

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