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Indigenous Youth as Agents of Change for Self-Determination

Welcome to our blog, the Human Righter. We shed light on contemporary human rights issues and comment on human rights developments. We dig deep into our focus areas within human rights, discuss SDGs and human rights. You will also find book reviews and analyses of new laws. 

This text was written by Omar Hajajra, a legal research intern at RWI. He is currently a Juris Doctor candidate at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA, United States of America. He previously earned his bachelors in history and political studies from Colby-Sawyer College and worked as a paralegal in immigration and asylum law.

August 9th, 2023 marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in its resolution 49/214 in December 1994. This declaration came within the context of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, intended to raise awareness of the “contributions of, and problems faced by” indigenous people. Since this monumental resolution and progress made on the inclusion of and bringing to the international scene of indigenous people, the UNGA adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. A foundational document in international jurisprudence regarding the rights of indigenous people and obligations of states towards them, this Declaration sets a clear standard that indigenous peoples have the right to full enjoyments of all the human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In an attempt to cover a wide range of these rights, the Declaration specifies the right to self-determination and the right to not be forcibly removed from their land. Importantly, the declaration emphasizes the right of indigenous peoples to “manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies” and “the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites, and the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects.”

This August 9th, the United Nations celebrated this day with the theme Indigenous youth as agents of change for self-determination. As indicated both in the UN Charter and relevant declarations, indigenous peoples are subject to the rights enjoyed by all peoples. They remain the most important stakeholder in the issues affecting them and their solutions. The selection of this year’s theme by the UN is fitting because, in an ever-changing and technologically advancing world, indigenous youth have become at the forefront of solutions to challenges to indigenous peoples’ human rights: be they environmental, cultural, socio-economic, educational or health related.

States are failing to adequately protect them, so indigenous youth are stepping in

Perhaps the most central theme of indigenous peoples’ quest for self-determination is their relationship with the land and the environment, which forms the basis of their spiritual, religious, and cultural identities. This means that while unsustainable development and the severe impact of climate change affect people world-wide, they have a particularily catastrophic impact on indigenous peoples, affecting their very existence. We have seen over and again telling examples of these impacts, from deforestation of the Amazon to rising sea levels.

Such macro impacts are exacerbated by the actions of states and corporations that fail to protect indigenous peoples from or help them wither these impacts. For example, large-scale corporate activities often focus on the exploitation of natural and land resources of indigenous people without regard to their individual or collective rights, or worse, to their spiritual and cultural attachments to these lands. This also has resulted in the eviction, expulsion, and forced removal of whole indigenous communities.

States likewise enable these activities chiefly through permitting and allowing economic exploitation such as extractive industries that impinge on legally recognized lands of indigenous peoples. This has been noted by advocacy groups and policy institutions. For example, it was noted in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that such exploitation of resources and land often “take place without the consent” of indigenous peoples. States routinely grant permits for lumber, mining, and others, including states with apparently robust legal protections for indigenous peoples, such as Sweden and Canada. Often in these situations, states are faced with incompatible interests between upholding the rights of indigenous people and economic development. Still, when states permit such development in general and specifically without comprehensive consultations with and consent of indigenous peoples, they fail their own legal obligations and violate the UNDRIP. This includes the violation of Article 32 of this treaty, which obligates states to obtain such consent.

Faced with catastrophic impacts from climate change and governmental policies, indigenous youth are speaking out. Viewing the erosion of their livelihoods and identities with urgency, they have taken the lead to protect them. As they step up, they are showing the world what it means to be indigenous: from raising awareness online to demonstrating in the streets, to legal actions in local, regional, and international forums against governments and corporations. More importantly, they have been bringing innovative and future-oriented solutions.


  • Elevate and listen to the diverse array of indigenous youth voices.
  • Promote and raise awareness about indigenous peoples, cultures, languages, and practices.
  • Strengthen institutional and legal mechanisms to adequately protect indigenous peoples within the context of national laws and international obligations.
  • Increase participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making processes that directly impact their livelihoods.
  • Institute and support ongoing dialogue with different facets of indigenous communities—from youth and pupils to women to LGBT individuals to others.
  • Invest in the preservation of indigenous means of subsistence, ancestral homelands, and their areas of habitat, and strengthen collaboration on access to water, sanitation, health and education.


The challenges faced by indigenous peoples are real and governments need to address them not as theoretical issues but as existential, affecting the very survival of these communities. The transition to green and sustainable living is at the forefront of solutions, and when governments listen to indigenous peoples, they start to meet their obligations under their own laws and international treaties. We have seen examples of this success, from indigenous youth winning against big oil in Africa, to Canadian provinces passage of laws in adherence to the UNDRIP.

The result? A win-win for states and indigenous people, and importantly, for the cherished values of universal human rights.

Featured image: Photo by Femke Schreurs on Unsplash
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