Promoting and Protecting Indigenous People’s Rights

29 August 2019

Earlier this month countries around the world marked International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme was ‘language’ to coincide with the 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages the aim of which is to revitalize, promote and protect Indigenous languages and their speakers. According to UNESCO over 90% of the world’s languages will be lost by the end of this century if moves are not made to protect them.

Linguistic erosion undermines the identity and cultural diversity of Indigenous peoples and risks the loss of traditional heritage and knowledge such as how to maintain biological diversity and address environmental challenges.

The right to maintain and use their own languages is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and includes:

  • The right to have indigenous languages recognised in constitutions and law
  • The right to live free from discrimination on the grounds of language

Denial of these language rights opens up the door for discriminatory policies and practices against Indigenous Peoples.

National Human Rights Institutions play an important role in promoting and protecting the rights of all citizens, including advocating for and providing access to remedy for Indigenous Peoples who face discrimination and the denial of their human rights.

Here are some examples of the approaches NHRIs are taking to support and protect Indigenous communities across the Commonwealth:

Australian Human Rights Commission

Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, is leading a national dialogue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls to understand their needs and the challenges they face, how to improve on the quality of life, and the rights achievements made over the last 30 years.

In June this year at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, the project launched the Hear Us, See Us exhibition which featured photographs and videos of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls who participated in the dialogues. The exhibition was a celebration of First Nations women and girls, providing a platform for their voices to be heard and confront the discrimination and structural barriers to the realisation of their human rights.

You can find out more about the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project as well as information on the Australia Human Rights Commission’s work on Indigenous Rights, here.


Of the 137 living languages spoken in Malaysia, more than 100 constitute Indigenous languages or Orang Asli/Asal Languages. A frequent challenge is the language barrier experienced by children who are raised speaking a different language to that which is taught in school.

SUHAKAM has been supporting efforts to develop various programmes to ensure equal access to education for Indigenous children, which is instrumental to the empowerment of Indigenous communities. In the past two decades, there have been efforts to recognise various indigenous languages in education environments. This has included recognising indigenous languages as school subjects and reintroducing languages into teaching programmes. In particular, SUHAKAM has been calling for the formal recognition of Indigenous languages in schools across a greater number of indigenous communities in Malaysia.

Find out more about SUHAKAM’s work here.

Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh

Ethnic minority groups in Bangladesh have suffered large scale land-grabbing resulting in displacement and loss of livelihood. Certain communities are now on the brink of extinction and Honorary Member of the Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh, and Professor at Dhaka University, Akhter Hussain, is calling on the government to provide greater protection for ethnic minority groups.

He stated that the Commission as a watchdog organisation needs to stand beside the ethnic minority communities in realising their fundamental human rights by providing all possible support, networking and advocacy. In particular, they are calling on the government to introduce measures to protect land laws, provide greater livelihood support, protect ethnic minority languages in schools and ensure that all ethnic minority groups are represented in public life.

Read Akhter Hussain’s article here

New Zealand Human Rights Commission

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission have released a report in response to a land dispute issue in Ihumātao. The land, which is of major cultural, spiritual and historical significance to the Māori Indigenous People, was confiscated in the 1860s by the New Zealand Government and the construction of 480 houses has been proposed for the area.

The report aims to provide a human rights led solution to the dispute; in particular, highlighting the government’s obligation to protect Māori rights to land and culture under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said that “the Government has endorsed the Declaration and by doing so has made a commitment to uphold the rights contained in it”.

Read the New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s statement and report here.

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