Indigenous Peoples and International Law: The Making of a Regime

This paper addresses the status of indigenous peoples in international law. The author argues that the creation of an international legal regime devoted to indigenous peoples is the first step in achieving appropriate treatment of those peoples by the global community and that this step has finally been taken.

The author begins with a historical analysis of the treatment of indigenous peoples under international law. He argues that the shift from a natural law to a positivist paradigm left to their exclusion from the protection of the international legal regime because that shift meant that international law applied only to state actors and not to individuals. Not until the implementation of the trusteeship doctrine by the United Nations after the Second World War did indigenous groups against became the subject of international law. At that point, customary international law on indigenous peoples began to develop, and it continued with the International Labour Organization conventions on the treatment of those peoples in the workforce and the United Nations treaty on racial discrimination. A hardened norm regarding the treatment indigenouspeoples was finally crystallized by the establishment of a UN working group and the Draft United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Further evidence that indigenous peoples have been incorporated into the international legal regime comes from the current state practice and the opinion of scholars in the field. This should be cause for optimism about the future treatment of aboriginal people by the international community. The author cautions, however, that the conditions in which many indigenous peoples live belie any assumption that they have achieved relative equality. The development of international norms on the status of indigenouspeoples has nonetheless been a move in the right direction.

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Oguamanam, Chidi, Indigenous Peoples and International Law: The Making of a Regime (2004). 30 Queen’s Law Journal 348-399, 2004.

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