Indigenous rights

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous People’s human rights are protected under the international treaties and conventions, as well as by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (or “UNDRIP”) and our own Treaty of Waitangi.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007. It was described by the UN as “a landmark declaration that brought to an end nearly 25 years of contentious negotiations over the rights of native people to protect their lands and resources, and to maintain their unique cultures and traditions.”

The New Zealand government officially endorsed the UNDRIP in 2010, after opposing it for almost three years. You can read then-Minister for Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples, announced the government's endorsement here.

The Declaration sets out a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples. The Declaration addresses both individual and collective rights; cultural rights and identity; rights to education, health, employment, language, and others. It declares discrimination against indigenous peoples unlawful and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. It also affirms their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own priorities in economic, social and cultural development. The Declaration explicitly encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between States and indigenous peoples.

The Preamble proclaims the Declaration to be “a standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect”. It is an aspirational document, whose text is not legally binding on States. Prime Minister John Key reaffirmed that UNDRIP is an ‘aspirational’ document, and will be implemented only ‘within the current legal and constitutional frameworks of New Zealand.’

Each of the UN Committees, when reviewing New Zealand’s human rights record, looks specifically at how well Māori are able to enjoy their rights equally with other New Zealanders, and at how well indigenous rights – such self-determination, cultural rights and rights to land and natural resources – are protected in Aotearoa New Zealand.  The UN human rights reporting processes are an opportunity to advocate for indigenous rights issues.    

There are also UN expert bodies that focus specifically on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.  They are the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), which meets annually in New York in April, and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), which meets in Geneva each July.  There is also a UN indigenous expert called the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who can investigate complaints of human rights breaches.  

There is a funding organisation called the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations that offers grants to support indigenous people to participate in UN processes.  Applications for funding to attend specific UN meetings are called for throughout the year – usually several months in advance of the particular meeting.

Read the Declaration:

You can also read the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples statements: