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In a message to mark the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, UNICEF, UNFPA and UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Regional Directors call on countries to give greater priority to the fulfillment of the rights of indigenous peoples and to ensure that they are not left behind in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are around 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide, living across 90 countries and representing 5000 diverse cultures. They make up less than 5 per cent of humanity, yet represent around 15 per cent of the world’s poorest people. Two thirds of the world’s indigenous peoples live in Asia and the Pacific. They include groups often referred to as tribal peoples, hill tribes, adivasis, janajati, orang asli, aboriginal or native.

Indigenous peoples make significant contributions to humanity’s cultural, intellectual and economic wealth. Across Asia and the Pacific, they are sharing essential knowledge and skills in conservation and the sustainable use of land, forests and natural resources – key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Yet many indigenous peoples remain unprotected and unrecognized. They face forced assimilation, exclusion and systemic discrimination. Their cultures, stories and knowledge are in danger of being lost. Indigenous children, in particular, are often deprived of opportunities to fulfill their full potential. The promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to ensure a life of dignity for all, leaving no one behind, so special attention must be paid to the needs and rights of indigenous peoples.

The International Day of Indigenous Peoples, celebrated every year on 9 August, is an important opportunity for countries and societies around the world to learn about, and commit themselves to the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples. These rights are enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

The UN Declaration calls on nations to ‘respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.’

ILO Convention No.169, on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, came into force in 1991, and is the sole international Convention focusing on indigenous peoples rights. Twenty-two states have ratified the Convention, but only two of them are in Asia and the Pacific.

Education is essential to preserve the unique identities of indigenous peoples, as well as for the full development of their potential as individuals and as communities. This is why the United Nations has chosen ’Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education’ as the theme for the 2016 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The UN Declaration recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to be educated in their own languages and cultures and calls on states to guarantee this right.

Yet there are many barriers to fulfillment, including a low prioritization of education for indigenous peoples in allocating public resources, language barriers and discriminatory and racist attitudes in education systems that are often reflected in textbooks and materials.

Indigenous communities In Asia and the Pacific also face obstacles in accessing health services, including quality sexual and reproductive health care and family planning. As a result, maternal and child mortality rates are higher, life expectancies are lower and people die younger among indigenous groups.

Structural forms of violence and discrimination, as well as the long-running conflicts affecting a number of Asian countries, often hit indigenous women the hardest. Many cases of rape, sexual enslavement and murder of indigenous women and girls have been reported, yet few have been investigated, with the perpetrators brought to justice. In some cases, their lands are still subject to exploitation and even land grabs without consultation and without consent.

All of this combines to limit indigenous peoples’ opportunities, develop and meet their full potential as human beings and as citizens.

Yet the tireless and courageous struggle by indigenous peoples for their rights have led to progress and there are encouraging signs. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by UN member States in September 2015, demands the empowerment of indigenous peoples, and calls for their full inclusion in bringing the Sustainable Development Goals into reality. Indigenous peoples are also included in Goal 2 related to sustainable agriculture and Goal 4 on ensuring access to all levels of education.

Nepal and Fiji are the only Asia-Pacific signatories to ILO Convention No. 169. The Philippines’ Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 was one of the first laws in Asia that recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral domains and to their cultural integrity, including the right to self-governance and self-determination.

We want to see more progress and would urge all governments to better prioritize the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples in policy planning and to offer more opportunities for their participation in policy planning and implementation. We urge governments to gather, analyze and disseminate accurate and disaggregated data on indigenous groups for sound policy formulation.

We would also urge all governments to ratify and implement ILO Convention No 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and to make the promise of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a reality. We must protect and respect indigenous peoples rights to ancestral territory, to self-determination and to be consulted on all actions that affect their lives. This is an essential part of building the peaceful and inclusive societies called for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - and crucial to ensuring that no one is left behind.

Yoriko Yasukawa is UNFPA’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Gwang-Jo Kim is Director of UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education and Wivina Belmonte is Deputy Regional Director for UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.


About the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples


In 1994, The United Nations General Assembly established the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples to be observed on 9 August to mark the day of the first meeting, of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights back in 1982. 

Every year, 9 August is commemorated as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year is devoted to ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education’.




  • Matthew Taylor - UNFPA Asia Pacific. Email: Tel: +66 84 438 2815
  • Christopher De Bono - UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific. Email: Tel: +66 (0) 2 356 9406
  • Noel Boivin – UNESCO Asia Pacific Bureau for Education. Email:  Tel: +66 (0) 2 391 0577 x 347

For information on the relevant International Labour Organisation Conventions, contact Sophy Fisher – ILO Asia Pacific: Tel: +66 (0)2 288 2482