Indigenous World 2020: European Union Engagement with Indigenous Issues

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 27 Member States established in 1951. Its legislative and executive powers are divided between the EU’s three main institutions: the European Parliament (co-legislative authority - EP), the Council of the European Union (co-legislative and executive authority - CoEU) and the European Commission (executive authority - EC). In addition, the EU has its own diplomatic service: the European External Action Service (with EU “embassies” throughout the world).

The EU has influence within the territory of its Member States but has also a global impact as an international key player, notably on human rights, development and environment issues. In this sense, “While internal competences concern the European Union's internal functioning, external competences are those that fall within the framework of the EU's relations and partnerships with non-EU countries and international, regional or global organisations.”[1]

The EU is part of the international process of promoting and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since 1996, four EU Member States have ratified the ILO Convention No 169[2], all EU Member States have signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, and the EU has contributed to and supported the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014.

“The European Union is founded on values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.[3] Those values also guide the EU's action both inside and outside its borders.

In this regard, the EU requires that all its development, investment and trade policies respect human rights and it is the largest provider of development aid in the world as it puts respect for human rights at the forefront of its aid granting policy.

The following pages are a summary of the main actions undertaken by the EU to protect and promote the human rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Evolution of EU legislation regarding Indigenous Peoples

First of all, even if the EU contributes to and applies the various UN legal instruments that protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples, it also develops its own legislation to support Indigenous Peoples.

The first step taken by the EU is the “Communication from the EC [European Commission] to the European Council of 27 May 1998 on a partnership for integration: a strategy for integrating the environment into EU policies”.[4] The EC Working Document of May 1998 entitled "On support for Indigenous Peoples in the development co-operation of the Community and Member States" establishes the objectives of supporting Indigenous Peoples' rights and integrating the concern for Indigenous Peoples as a cross-cutting aspect of human empowerment and development cooperation. It advocates for the full and free participation of Indigenous Peoples in all stages of the project cycle and that their participation in development activities should include elements such as prior consultation, their consent to envisaged activities, their control over activities affecting their lives and land, and the identification of their own priorities for development.

The ensuing November 1998 Council Resolution of Development Ministers of the EU Member States[5] welcomes the Working Document and recognises that "cooperation with and support for the establishment of partnerships with Indigenous Peoples is essential for the objectives of poverty elimination, sustainable development of natural resources, the observance of human rights and the development of democracy". The CoEU further acknowledges that development cooperation should contribute to enhancing the right and capacity of Indigenous Peoples to their self-development. It equally confirms that this includes the right to object to projects, in particular in Indigenous Peoples' traditional areas, and compensation where projects negatively affect the livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples.

On 11 June 2002, the EC submitted a report to the CoEU on the review of progress of working with Indigenous Peoples.[6] In November 2002, the CoEU adopted Council Conclusions[7] that recall the 1998 Council Resolution commitments and invites the EU to pursue their implementation. The EC and Member States are invited to ensure coherence (including through the establishment of dedicated focal points in the EC and Member States), coordination in multilateral fora, as well as training of personnel on issues related to human rights of Indigenous Peoples. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples' issues are to be mainstreamed into the EU policies, practices and work methods. The CoEU also decided that the EU has to provide for capacity building of organisations representing Indigenous Peoples as well as to integrate the concerns of Indigenous Peoples in political dialogues with partner countries (as an integral part of the human rights clauses of the different co-operation and association agreements).

In 2008, the EU adopted the “EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders” [8]  to provide practical suggestions for enhancing EU action in relation to human rights defenders. The guidelines can be used in contacts with third countries at all levels as well as in multilateral human rights fora, in order to support and strengthen ongoing efforts by the EU to promote and encourage respect for the right to defend human rights. The guidelines also provide for interventions by the EU for human rights defenders at risk and suggest practical means to support and assist human rights defenders. In addition, the EU has established “” [9], a mechanism established to protect defenders at high risk worldwide through an emergency support platform.

Furthermore, although the EU has included Indigenous Peoples in its "EU Annual Reports on Human Rights and Democracy in the World"[10], the 2016 Report is a turning point as the EU increased its concern by referring massively to Indigenous Peoples issues, not only recognising them among vulnerable groups and the need for a stronger emphasis but also analysing their situation on the ground through the work of EU delegations worldwide. In its 2017 and 2018 Reports, the EU dedicates a specific part to the "Rights of Indigenous Peoples" and makes direct references in the part of "Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders".

In 2016, the CoEU adopted “An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic”[11]. In 2014, the CoEU and the EP asked the EC and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to develop an integrated policy on Arctic matters, and to develop a more coherent framework for EU action and funding programmes. This policy focuses on climate change, environmental protection, sustainable development, international cooperation and particularly the participation of local stakeholders.

The following year, the CoEU adopted “Council Conclusions on Indigenous Peoples” (15 May 2017)[12]. The CoEU underlines the importance of addressing discrimination and inequalities based on Indigenous origin or identity as well as the importance of actions taken to address the threats to and violence against Indigenous Peoples. The CoEU also highlights the crucial importance of further enhancing opportunities for dialogue with Indigenous Peoples at all levels of EU cooperation.

These conclusions follow the “Joint Staff Working Document - Implementing EU External Policy on Indigenous Peoples”[13] published by the High Representative and the EC in October 2016. It identifies ways for the EU to strengthen its support to Indigenous Peoples through existing external policies and financing.

A month later, the EU adopted “The new European Consensus on Development” (2017)[14]. This Consensus offers a common development vision for the EU and constitutes a comprehensive common framework for European development cooperation. It integrates the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. In doing so, it aligns European development action with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the international community in September 2015.

At the end of year, the European Parliament published a study on "The situation of indigenous children with disabilities" (2017) [15]. Indigenous children with disabilities (ICwD) face discrimination at many levels, based on ethnicity, age, ability and gender and this often leads to serious human rights violations. The lack of data, both on the prevalence of disabilities among indigenous children and young people and on specific violations of their human rights, is a serious constraint to any policy intended to respect, protect and promote their rights. The study seeks to identify these gaps, point to certain patterns and recommend ways of improving data collection and the situation of ICwD in the future.

This legislative evolution shows the EU’s increasing involvement and protection for Indigenous Peoples’ rights[16]. In this sense, the EP has strengthened its commitment by adopting the resolution on “violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the world, including land grabbing”[17] on 3 July 2018. The resolution covers the main issues and human rights violations faced by Indigenous Peoples around the world. It focuses particularly on human rights of Indigenous Peoples, land grabbing, business and human rights, sustainable and economic development for Indigenous Peoples and EU cooperation policy with third countries. By doing so, this resolution sets the EU main priorities and future steps regarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as calling for the establishment of four different mechanisms to strengthen the protection of their rights:

  • a grievance mechanism to lodge complaints regarding violations and abuses of their rights resulting from EU-based business activities [art. 45];
  • a mechanism to carry out independent impact assessment studies prior to the conclusion of trade and cooperation agreements [art. 72];
  • an effective administrative complaint mechanism for victims of human rights violations [art. 81]; and
  • a standing rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples within the EP with the objective of monitoring the human rights situation, and in particular the implementation of the UNDRIP and ILO Convention No. 169 [art. 85].

Indigenous Peoples’ participation in EU events

Indigenous Peoples regularly participate in events organised by the EU relating to human rights and development.

Sakharov Prize[18]

Since 1988, the EP awards the annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the globe, drawing attention to human rights violations as well as supporting the laureates and their cause. In 2017, Ms. Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic, a human rights defender from the Ki'che' Peoples (Guatemala) was one of the three finalists and the first indigenous candidate of the Prize. In 2019, the EP awarded the Prize to Mr. Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uyghur human rights defender from China's Uyghur people.

European Development Days (EDD)[19]

Organised by the EC, the EDD brings the development community together each year to share ideas and experiences in ways that inspire new partnerships and innovative solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. The 2020 EDD will focus on biodiversity and the EU acknowledges the key role of Indigenous Peoples with whom participation and contribution are encouraged.

EU-NGO Forum on Human Rights[20]

As part of the broader dialogue and engagement between the EU and civil society organisations, the forum is organised every year by the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EC and the Human Rights and Democracy Network (HRDN). The 2019 Forum was dedicated to the nexus between human rights and the environment and several Indigenous representatives were invited to discuss what role the EU can play in advancing a fair environmental future through three entry points: “Access to information and participation”, “Due diligence and access to justice”, and “Empowering and protecting human right defenders working on environmental issues”.

Bridging the Gap II[21]

Funded by the EU, this project aims at making development cooperation accessible to and inclusive of persons with disabilities, which is an obligation for EU and its Member States as parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). With a view to fully take into account intersectional discrimination, this project includes the perspective and participation of Indigenous persons with disabilities in the design of the program and in its implementation on the ground.

Amalia Rodriguez Fajardo and Mathias Wuidar are human rights lawyers. They work as representatives to the EU at the Indigenous Peoples’ centre for documentation, research and information (Docip).

Notes and references

[1] EUR-Lex. “Glossary of Summaries”. Accessed 27 February 2020:

[2] Denmark (1996), The Netherlands (1998), Spain (2007) and Luxembourg (2018 - entry into force on 05/06/2019).

[3] Council of the European Union. 8814/17. “Council Conclusions on Indigenous Peoples -

Foreign Affairs Council.15 May 2017:

[4] Council of the European Union. Communication from the Commission to the European Council - Partnership for integration - A strategy for Integrating Environment into EU Policies - Cardiff - June 1998. Accessed 27 February 2020:

[5] European Commission. 2141th Council meeting – DEVELOPMENT - 30 November 1998. C/98/42. Accessed 27 February 2020:

[6] EUR-Lex. Report from the Commission to the Council - Review of progress of working with indigenous peoples. Accessed 27 February 2020:

[7] European Commission. 2463rd Council meeting - GENERAL AFFAIRS - 8 November 2002. C/02/350.

[8] Op. Cit .(4)

[9] Op. Cit .(4)

[10] Op. Cit .(4)

[11] European Commission. Joint Communication to The European Parliament and The Council - An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic. Accessed 27 February 2020:

[12] Op. Cit. (3)

[13] European Commission. High Representative of The Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “Joint Staff Working Document - Implementing EU External Policy on Indigenous Peoples”. Accessed 27 February 2020:

[14] Council of the European Union, 2 June 2017. “The New European Consensus On Development ‘Our World, Our Dignity, Our Future’”. Accessed 27 February 2020:

[15] Op. Cit .(4)

[16] Op. Cit .(4)

[17] Op. Cit .(4)

[18] Op. Cit .(4)

[19] Op. Cit .(4)

[20] Op. Cit .(4)

[21] Op. Cit .(4)


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here

Tags: Global governance



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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