International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

The Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities (AIPG) commemorates August 9 as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This global observance was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994 through the adoption of Resolution 49/214. The International Day marks the date of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which took place in 1982, and functions to continue the spirit and working agenda of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, which began on 10 December 1994.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted on September 13, 2007, is regarded by the United Nations as the “most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples.” The Declaration enumerates, inter alia, the rights of indigenous peoples to all human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as the ability to maintain and strengthen their distinct institutions while fully participating in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the State. The text, which is available here, builds on established international human rights standards and other fundamental freedoms within the context of indigenous issues.

With approximately 476 million indigenous peoples living in more than 90 countries around the world, the COVID-19 Pandemic represents a significant danger to these communities. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (ECOSOC) explains:

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses a grave health threat to Indigenous peoples around the world. Indigenous communities already experience poor access to healthcare, significantly higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases, lack of access to essential services, sanitation, and other key preventive measures, such as clean water, soap, disinfectant, etc. Likewise, most nearby local medical facilities, if and when there are any, are often under-equipped and under-staffed. Even when Indigenous peoples are able to access healthcare services, they can face stigma and discrimination.  A key factor is to ensure these services and facilities are provided in indigenous languages, and as appropriate to the specific situation of Indigenous peoples.

In April, the Chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues released a statement warning of the impact that the COVID-19 Pandemic could have on indigenous communities. In it, she specifically warned of dangers relating to keeping these communities informed, protected, and prioritized due to the unique dangers that they face. This letter was followed by an ECOSOC Policy Brief entitled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples,” which was released in May. The Policy Brief outlines the situation and implemented responses by both UN Member States and the indigenous communities themselves while warning that:

The impact of historical under-funding and lack of adequate social services in indigenous communities becomes more evident in the face of a pandemic such as this. It is critical that indigenous peoples, often among the most vulnerable members of society, are not left behind. This requires information and messaging in indigenous languages, medical supplies and services, emergency sanitation supplies and, where necessary, emergency food and cash aid. COVID-19 measures affecting indigenous peoples should be determined and implemented on the basis of full consultation and agreement with indigenous leaders to ensure support is provided with the full involvement of the indigenous peoples themselves, and in a culturally appropriate manner.

In both the short—and the medium—to long-term, governments must ensure that indigenous peoples are specifically included in economic and social recovery stimulus plans and policies.

The Brief concludes with a series of policy recommendations for governments, as well as United Nations, private sector, and civil society entities. The full list of recommendations can be viewed here.

On the occasion of the 2020 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the Auschwitz Institute stands with indigenous populations around the world and reiterates the urgency of providing critical protections for these communities. As Dr. James Waller writes in the AIPG Policy Challenge Brief entitled “Implications of COVID-19 for Atrocity Prevention”:

While COVID-19’s impact continues on a global scale – economically, socially, politically, and existentially – it will be particularly felt in deeply divided, fragile, conflict-prone, or at-risk societies. In such societies, it is absolutely vital that policy measures be taken for preventive action before risk escalates to the point of mass atrocity.