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The COVID-19 pandemic is having dramatic consequences on world’s population due to its global reach and its extremely high infectiveness. It has challenged and highlighted both preparedness and vulnerability and in particular it has shown that the most affected individuals are those belonging to disadvantaged groups, among which indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous peoples: a history of violence and domination

Nowadays there are more than 476 million indigenous peoples that can be found in all regions of the world, spanning from the artic to the tropical forests. They embody 80% of the world’s cultural and biological biodiversity and their spectrum ranges from hunter gathers to legal scholars. Under international law, the term indigenous peoples refers “broadly to the living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others”.[1] This domination pattern started several centuries ago when Europeans settled in the lands of North and South America, Australia and South Africa, subjecting the native’s populations to slaughter, enslavement and disease. Those who survived these tortures were discriminated and alienated for centuries by their new rulers. With the advent of exploration and conquest, a bigger question started to rise regarding the relationship between Europeans and indigenous populations. Many theorists questioned the legality and morality of claims of domination in respect to the “New World” and in particular of the use of violent coercive means against native people.[2] Among these, in the 16th century Francisco de Vitoria was the first suggesting that legal principles of indigenous peoples should be respected.[3] At this point, many nations worldwide started recognizing the need to grant protection to these individuals and their cultures through specific laws and statutes. Finally, the issue became a matter of global interest and the international community recognized indigenous peoples’ rights and granted the protection of their unique cultures and traditions. These actions granted indigenous peoples with a protection exceeding that of international human rights regimes due to the precedent deprivation that these populations experienced during immigration. 

The rights of indigenous peoples under international law

Only during the 20th century, indigenous peoples ceased to be mere objects of discussion of their own rights and started to be participants in multilateral dialogues with states, NGOs and international organizations.  In particular, during the sixth and seventh decade of the 1900, during conferences with international intergovernmental institution, they raised attention and demanded actions to grant their survival as distinct communities. In 1977 the First conference on Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations marked a milestone in the Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with the international community and in particular with the United Nations, promoting their inclusion and representation at the global level. However, the most concrete action to safeguard and promote indigenous peoples’ rights, was adopted 11 years later, in 1989 with the International Labour Organisation Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. This Convention, promotes the respect for the cultures and institutions of indigenous and tribal peoples and “presumes their right to continued existence within their national societies, to establish their own institutions and to determine the path of their own development.” In addition, it also calls for governments to consult with the peoples concerned with regard to legislative or administrative measures that may directly affect them and establishes the right of these peoples to participate in decision-making processes regarding policies and programmes that concern them.[4] In more recent years, in 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The text highlights the right of indigenous peoples to fully enjoy as a collective or as individuals, all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law. In addition, it underlines the natives’ right to self-determination and the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they choose to, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state. 

The challenges of COVID-19 pandemic on indigenous populations

Even if more recognition and inclusion was granted to indigenous population, they continue to experience inequalities. In particular, during the current global crisis consequent to the COVID-19 pandemic, natives are the ones that are suffering the most from its consequences. As a matter of fact, epidemiological and socio-ecological models show that indigenous peoples, together with other socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, are being disproportionally affected and are most likely going to bear the brunt of the pandemic. In addition to poverty and underlying health status, many indigenous peoples live in isolated or remote communities, where health-care services are difficult to reach, have limited capacity, or do not exist. It follows that, when COVID-19 is introduced in indigenous communities it is be difficult to contain also due to the lower innate level of immunity. In past epidemics, indigenous peoples had approximately from three to sixfold higher risk of severe disease and death. Moreover, they also live in crowded multigenerational homes with shared facilities, making it extremely difficult to promote self-isolation and distancing and increasing the speed of spread of the virus. The most threatened individuals are elders that have the fundamental role of keeping and transmitting traditional wisdom and culture to guarantee the health and wellbeing of their indigenous communities. If they die before passing down their knowledge that can be lost forever.  

Under these circumstances, indigenous communities in some of the most forested areas of the world are experiencing human rights abuses, with government prioritizing extracting industries for recovery plans. Some private sectors together with States like Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Indonesia and Peru are driving land-grabs and violation of indigenous peoples’ rights. This is leading to an increase in deforestation around native’s land. As a matter of fact, domestic and international laws preventing land grabs were not enforced by the states and led to a rise in deforestation in year 2020. The indigenous peoples who tried to enforce their rights were threatened with prosecution and arrest. 

Conclusion and analysis 

According to the world bank indigenous peoples safeguard 80% of the world biodiversity. However, after centuries of discriminations and abuses, their knowledges, rights and identities are still threatened. During the COVID pandemic, socio-ecological factors led to the faster and more dangerous spread of the virus among indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples also experience a high degree of socio-economic marginalization leading them to become even more vulnerable during situations of global crisis. In this setting, the international community should acknowledge the limits and difficulties of these communities and should promote an effective monitoring mechanism together with coordinated actions to grant support and training to medical staff. In addition, it is also fundamental to promote the spreading of health education messages to provide people with clear information about the disease and how to prevent it.    

[1] Anaya, S. James. Indigenous Peoples in International Law, p. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Francisco d e V i t o r i a, Reflecciones sobre los Indios y el derecho de la guerra, Buenos Aires: 

Espasa-Calpe, 1946.

[4] From the original text of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) 

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