The Indigenous World 2021: 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 main institutions: the European Parliament (co-legislative authority), the Council of the European Union (co-legislative and executive authority) and the European Commission (executive authority). In addition, the EU has its own diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (with EU Delegations throughout the world).

The EU is part of the international process of promoting and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Four EU Member States have ratified ILO Convention No 169[1] and the EU supported the adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007 as well as the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014.

Aside from the influence within the territory of its Member States, the EU also has a global impact as an international key player, notably on human rights, development, public health and environment issues. In the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU has had to adapt its system and, together with its Member States, provide a common response, support and reinforce national health systems, tackle the socio-economic impact and ensure a recovery.

The EU has been supporting the rights of Indigenous Peoples since 1998 and integrating their concerns as a cross-cutting aspect of human empowerment and development cooperation. In recent years, the EU has increasingly taken into consideration the rights and issues of Indigenous Peoples and promoted their participation in EU processes. EU legislation has evolved by incorporating Indigenous Peoples’ rights,[2] particularly in the European Parliament Resolution on “violation of the rights of indigenous peoples in the world, including land grabbing” (2018) and the recently passed resolutions that confirm the EU’s commitment to Indigenous Peoples. This increasing interest goes hand in hand with the EU’s main priorities for the coming years, i.e. the European Green Deal and its Biodiversity Strategy, in which Indigenous Peoples’ participation and inclusion should be strongly encouraged.

Finally, as the largest provider of development aid in the world, the EU is seeking to adopt a decisive global response to the COVID-19 pandemic by adapting its priorities and programmes with partner countries and international and local civil society organisations.

Indigenous Peoples and the EU response to COVID-19

Since the adoption of its Resolution on Indigenous Peoples in 2018, the European Parliament has expressed increasing concern over the persistent violations of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. Seven of the European Parliament’s committees prepared five resolutions in 2020 (to be adopted at the beginning of 2021) that include Indigenous Peoples’ rights and issues. These resolutions,[3] which have had to be adapted to the impact of COVID-19, cover crucial issues for Indigenous Peoples: “Corporate due diligence and corporate accountability”;[4] “The effects of climate change on human rights and the role of environmental defenders on this matter”;[5] “Human Rights and Democracy in the World 2019”;[6] “Protecting and restoring the world’s forests”;[7] and “The impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations in developing countries”.[8]

For its part, the European Commission is also committed to countering the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. In collaboration with Indigenous Peoples and civil society organisations, the EU is continuing to address their issues through its human rights dialogues with third countries and monitoring of the situation on the ground by EU Delegations. In addition, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) is continuing to fund the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism, which supports Indigenous and environmental rights defenders.

The European Commission has taken concrete steps to keep supporting Indigenous Peoples during the pandemic. According to Sébastien Porter from DG International Cooperation and Development:

through its Crisis Facility, the EU has mobilised special funds to address the plight of the pandemic on Indigenous Peoples in the Latin American region. One action (EUR 1M) aims at addressing the lack of high-quality, trustworthy and culturally-relevant information on the COVID-19 pandemic. Another action (EUR 530K) ensures effective protection to Indigenous human rights defenders against the new threats that emerged following the pandemic (land grabbing, seizure of natural resources, etc.).[9]

In addition:

the EU through its EU Delegations launched calls for proposals for inter alia the effective establishment of FPIC protocols by Indigenous Peoples in the protected area of Messok Dja in the Republic of Congo, to improve access to quality health care and education for indigenous minorities’ communities in Kenya or support Indigenous Peoples and environmental defenders to become key actors to promote social and environmental policies leading to sustainable development (Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina).[10]

The European Green Deal

The Green Deal is a vast European action plan aimed at making Europe climate neutral by 2050. Presented on 11 December 2019 by the European Commission and adopted by Member States, the Green Deal aims to propose a whole new growth strategy for the EU and transform it into “a climate neutral, fair society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy”.[11]

The Green Deal is intended to be a holistic strategy influencing every aspect of EU policy. In the future, it is likely that actions, projects and funds related to the environment and climate change will be reviewed and that there will be a significant number of effects in areas relating to protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, such as development aid policies and support for human rights and democracy. It is therefore crucial that Indigenous Peoples are consulted and participate in this process given their predominant role in nature preservation, resource management and the fight against climate change.

There are currently two main initiatives proposed under the Green Deal: the European Climate Law and the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030; this article will focus on the latter. In response to Member States’ concern[12] about the global rate of biodiversity loss, the European Commission transmitted the communication “EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 - Bringing nature back into our lives”[13] to the European Council. This communication is considered one of the central elements of the Green Deal. It aims to protect and restore the EU's biodiversity and ensure well-functioning ecosystems, which are key to boosting the resilience of the EU’s economy and societies to future threats such as climate change impacts, forest fires, food insecurity or outbreaks of disease. To this end, the communication includes several commitments on nature protection and restoration, a new biodiversity governance framework and EU global action on biodiversity. For instance, faced with the urgent need to restore biodiversity and reduce the effects of the climate crisis, EU institutions are focusing on extending protected areas. In its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, in line with the new Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) goal, the European Commission proposes transforming at least 30% of Europe's land and sea into protected areas.

At this stage, it is difficult to define with any precision the place that will be given to Indigenous Peoples in this process but there are encouraging signs. Firstly, the EU recognises that upholding territorial rights and enabling local communities to manage their lands is the best strategy to protect biodiversity, as long as Indigenous Peoples are protected from land grabbing, the human impacts of conservation projects and abuses by eco-guards. In fact, the European Commission has been confronted with cases of violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in relation to EU-funded projects and decided to suspend funds in some cases such as that of the WWF and the planned creation of Messok Dja.[14]

Secondly, in its communication on the “EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 - Bringing nature back into our lives”,[15] the European Commission proposes that the EU ensure a principle of equality. This principle includes inter alia “respect for the rights and the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities”.[16] The European Commission also recommends that in all of its work the EU “strengthen the links between biodiversity protection and human rights, gender, health, education, conflict sensitivity, the rights-based approach, land tenure and the role of indigenous peoples and local communities”.[17]

In conclusion, the vast reforms undertaken by the EU as part of the Green Deal are a real opportunity to strengthen consideration of Indigenous Peoples in EU actions, as long as the conservation model chosen by the EU is based on dialogue, participation and inclusion of the Indigenous Peoples and local populations affected.

The EU protection mechanism for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)

The EU supports HRDs through its “Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders” (2008),[18] emergency resolutions, public statements, political dialogues with third countries, visits to HRDs by diplomats, and dedicated funds. Amidst the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU has adapted its support to tackle the increasing vulnerability faced by HRDs and local communities at risk.

Through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), the EU has established an HRD mechanism, “”,[19] led by a consortium of 12 NGOs active in the field of human rights. The mechanism aims to protect defenders at high risk by providing a stable, comprehensive and gender-sensitive emergency support. Through the emergency grant and temporary relocation grant, HRDs can access urgent security measures to protect themselves, their family and their work. HRDs can request a grant through the secure webform available on the “” website or directly through the 24/7 emergency helpline run by Frontline Defenders.

In addition, “” provides training, support and capacity building to HRDs and local organisations via a grant-making programme in order to implement activities aimed at advancing a human rights agenda and countering violations.


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).


This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Denmark (1996), The Netherlands (1998), Spain (2007) and Luxembourg (2018).

[2] For EU legislative developments related to Indigenous Peoples, please refer to Rodriguez Fajardo, Amalia, and Mathias Wuidar. “European Union Engagement with Indigenous Issues.” In The Indigenous World 2020, Edited by Dwayne Mamo, 639-646. IWGIA, 2020.

[3] European Parliament. “Committees.” 2021.

[4] Committee in charge: JURI. Committees’ opinion: AFET, TRADE.

[5] Committee in charge: AFET. Committees’ opinion: DEVE, ENVI, LIBE.

[6] Committee in charge: AFET. Committee opinion: FEMM.

[7] Committee in charge: ENVI. Committees’ opinion: DEVE, INTA.

[8] Committee in charge: DEVE. Committees’ opinion: LIBE, FEMM.

[9] Exchange with Mr. Sébastien Porter (European Commission - Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development - People and Peace - Gender Equality, Human Rights and Democratic Governance - DEVCO.B.1) on 17 December 2020. The authors would like to thank Mr. Porter for his time and inputs.

[10] Idem.

[11] European Commission. “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: The European Green Deal.” Brussels, 11 December 2019.

[12] Council of the European Union. Council conclusions on “Preparation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).” Brussels, 19 December 2019.

[13] Council of the European Union. Commission communication on the “EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 - Bringing nature back into our lives.” Brussels, 25 May 2020.

[14] European Parliament, Parliamentary questions. “Answer given by Mr. Mimica on behalf of the European Commission.” P-002044/2019. 25 June 2019.

[15] Idem.

[16] Idem.

[17] Idem.

[18] European Union External Action Service (EEAS). “EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders.” 21 June 2016. Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders


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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