UN Actions and Commitments

UN Actions and Commitments

This unit highlights the contributions of the United Nations to the protection of isolated peoples.

According to a report presented by the secretariat of the United Nations General Assembly in 2009, peoples in isolation are indigenous peoples or subgroups thereof that do not maintain regular contact with the majority population and tend to shun any type of contact with outsiders. Majority of isolated peoples are found in tropical forests and/or in remote, untraveled areas, which in many cases are rich in natural resources. For these peoples, isolation is employed as a strategy for survival. It should be noted that there is no consensus on what term should be used to refer to these peoples. The most commonly used concept in the international sphere is “peoples in isolation”.

Isolated peoples share some general features that are common to all of them; they maintain a closely interdependent relationship with their environment that results in an intimate knowledge of their environment. This however enables them to maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle generation after generation. Second is that these peoples are unfamiliar with how mainstream society functions, leaving them defenseless and extremely vulnerable, and faced with high risk of extinction. These peoples are constantly faced with threats and encroachments on their territories, which directly jeopardize the preservation of their cultures and ways of life. The vulnerability of these groups is worsened with the violation of their human rights by those who seek to exploit the natural resources in their territories and by the fact that aggression against these peoples and their ecosystems mostly go unpunished. The UN however has contributed to addressing this problem with several laws put in place. For the UN, one thing to bear in mind in relation to these peoples is the fact that they are individuals and as such are entitled to enjoy the full range of internationally recognized human rights.

In essence, isolated peoples are entitled to certain rights such as the right to life, to physical, moral and spiritual integrity, to self-determination, to land, territory and resources, to culture, to the preservation of their traditional and ancestral practices, to the definition of their own development models, to free, prior and informed consent and, especially, to an interpretation that favors the rights of these peoples, such as self-determination, the right to territory and the right to preserve their own cultures.

An assessment of the right to self-determination means that the decision of these peoples to remain isolated must be respected. This guarantees respect for their traditional ways of life and forms of political and social organization and also ensures that public policies and laws are instituted to achieve this. The right to territory is essential, as isolated peoples are totally dependent on their environment and their lives revolve around a close relationship with it. An implication of this is that it becomes impossible to respect their decision to remain in isolation without guaranteeing and respecting the exercise of their territorial rights, as any attack on their environment would amount to an attack on their culture and would jeopardize the maintenance of their isolation. With respect to the right to culture, the exercise of the cultural rights of isolated peoples requires that the survival of their cultures be guaranteed because their vulnerability puts their cultures at risk of disappearing.

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