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Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home Self Determination: International Law & Practice > Study of  Discrimination against Indigenous Populations

Self Determination: International Law & Practice

Study of  Discrimination against Indigenous Populations

 Excerpts from Reports by Jose Martinez Cobo,
Special Rapporteur, Sub Commission on Prevention of Discrimination
and Protection of Minorities, 1986  


E/CN.4/SUB.2/1986/7/ADD.4, PARAS. 379-382

379. Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.

380. This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present, of one or more of the following factors:

(a) Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them;

(b) Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands;

(c) Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.);

(d) Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language);

(e) Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world;

(f) Other relevant factors.

381. On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous populations through self- identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by these populations as one of its members (acceptance by the group).

382. This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.


(E/CN.4/SUB.2/L.566, PARAS. 34 AND 45)

34. In the light of these historical considerations, the following working definition is proffered:

"Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a State structure which incorporates mainly the national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant."

45. ISOLATED OR MARGINAL POPULATIONS.

Although they have not suffered conquest or colonization, isolated or marginal population groups existing in the country should also be regarded as covered by the notion of "indigenous populations" for the following reasons: (a) they are descendants of groups which were in the territory of the country at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived there; (b) precisely because of their isolation from other segments of the country's population they have preserved almost intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterized as indigenous; (c) they are, even if only formally, placed under a State structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to theirs.  

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