UN Experts Seminar: Indigenous Land Claims


Ottawa, April 1, 1996

Dear Friends,

We are pleased to enclose for your information the conclusions emanated from the U.N. Experts Seminar on Land Rights and Claims, which took part in Whitehorse, Yukon, March 24-28, 1996.

As these conclusions are the result of consensual agreement among all the participants present at the end of the meeting, they are not open to revision, however, they represent fully the wishes of indigenous peoples around the table.

We hope you will be able to be in a position to give this document the widest possible circulation.

We thank you for your cooperation.

Rodrigo Contreras

Executive Director

WCIP Headquarters
100 Argyle Avenue
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1B6
Tel: (613) 230-9030
Fax: (613) 230-9340

Final Unedited Version


The United Nations Expert Seminar on Practical Experiences regarding Indigenous Land Rights and Claims meeting at Whitehorse, Canada, from 24 to 28 March 1996, bearing in mind and building upon important work already accomplished by the United Nations system, in particular in the area of standard- setting and within the context of other expert seminars such as the Expert meeting on indigenous self-government held in Nuuk, Greenland, and meetings taking into account the new partnerships between indigenous peoples and the international community based on mutual respect, reciprocity and harmonious, accessible and equitable process offers the following conclusions and recommendations for the consideration of governments, indigenous peoples and their organizations, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.

I 1. Indigenous peoples have a distinctive spiritual and material relationship with their lands, and with the air, waters, coastal sea, ice, flora, fauna and other resources.

2. The importance of the issue of the link between self- determination and the right to land is recognized.

3. The promotion and protection of rights over lands and resources of indigenous peoples are vital for their development and cultural survival.

4. Indigenous peoples continue to be affected by the consequences of colonialism and are often deprived of a land and resource base.

5. Governments should recognize the lands rights and titles of indigenous peoples and implement effective and appropriate procedures and mechanisms, including constitutional, legal or treaty agreements.

6. Throughout the whole process, the procedures for the recognition of these rights, should provide for the effective representation and informed participation of indigenous peoples as equals. Without this, whatever legislation or treaty on this matter constitutes an imposition and not an enduring agreement.

7. States should make best efforts to guarantee access to land of indigenous peoples deprived of their land or who lack sufficient land and depend upon it for their survival, in order to guarantee their cultural and material development. Mechanisms such as land funds a claim settlement process where they exist are encouraged.

8. The recognition of rights of indigenous peoples to specific lands which they occupy cannot be separated from the recognition of other rights, within larger areas necessary for their material and cultural development.

9. Governments should review their laws and policies in order to address the concept of the inherent rights to self- government and self-management of indigenous peoples.

10. The existence of a fair constitutional and legal system, including a fair judicial system, able to guarantee due process of law is an important framework for the success and implementation of land settlement processes. In some countries experience has shown that the establishment of fair judicial processes for the implementation of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements with indigenous peoples has been a useful means towards the respect of such agreements and the education of the indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

11. Experience has shown that the equitable and fair conclusion and implementation of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements relating to land between states and indigenous peoples can contribute to environmentally sound and sustainable development for the benefit of all.

12. The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People is an important vehicle for substantive participation of indigenous peoples in the resolution of land settlements and for increasing constructive partnerships with states and non- indigenous communities.

13. I.L.O. Convention 169 is regarded by indigenous peoples as articulating some minimum standards respecting indigenous land rights. "The United Nations draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" as adopted by the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities could be considered an opportunity for States to adopt an instrument reflecting a broad consensus among indigenous peoples about their land and resource rights.

14. Land rights and compensation issues arising from the taking or use of indigenous lands for military or security purposes, whether in war or in peacetime, can raise special problems, which need to be addressed by Governments and the international community.

15. Where land agreements are intended to protect the way of life or cultural integrity of indigenous peoples, social issues should be given equal emphasis to economic and resource issues.

16. Political will, in the form of a genuine commitment on the part of Governments, to partnership, in decision making is essential to the success of co-management regimes, and to the avoidance of adversarial relations between the parties to such regimes.


17. Land rights settlements should be freely negotiated, in good faith and not imposed unilaterally by legislation or negotiated under duress or threat.

18. Governments should renounce discriminatory legal doctrines and policies which deny human rights or limit indigenous land and resource rights. In particular, they should consider adopting corrective legislation and policies, within the International Decade, regarding the following:

        (a)  The doctrine of terra nullius.

        (b)  The doctrine that indigenous communities do
             not have the capacity to own land or to own
             land in their collective capacity.

        (c)  The doctrine that indigenous land, title or
             ownership may be taken or impaired by the
             state or third parties without due process of
             law and adequate and appropriate compensation.

        (d)  Doctrines or policies that indigenous lands
             must be held in trust regardless of the
             will of the indigenous peoples concerned.

        (e)  Doctrines and policies imposing an extinguishment
             of indigenous land rights, title or ownership.

        (f)  Policies which exclude some indigenous peoples
             from the land claims process established by the
19. Principles or guidelines for land selection or demarcation of indigenous lands should be jointly negotiated in a fair and equitable process and without the imposition of arbitrary criteria.

20. Governments, with indigenous peoples, should establish fair procedures for reviewing situations and for taking corrective action in situations in which indigenous land or resources have been taken or extinguished through processes which are claimed or are found to be fundamentally unfair or discriminatory.

21. Governments have a responsibility to ensure indigenous peoples have access to adequate resources to research and negotiate their claims so that settlements are equitable, just and enduring.

22. The structure, mandate, objectives, representation and accountability of members and mode of operation, including funding, of co-management structures should be determined through a process of negotiation with the indigenous parties to support the principle of equal participation.

23. It is important that practical effect be given to the spirit and intent of treaties and land agreements. This requires a willingness by the parties to act as partners, not adversaries as well as a clear understanding of the spirit and intent of treaties and land agreements by all parties.

24. Parties should negotiate on a basis of equality acknowledging indigenous leadership, structures, languages, social and legal systems in all aspects of the negotiations and implementation. For example, every effort must be made for agreements relating to land rights to be drafted in the language of the indigenous peoples concerned and for the indigenous language version to have equal status to the state language versions.

25. Interim protection measures, such as moratoriums on land transfers and on implementation of proposed development projects, should be taken, as necessary to protect indigenous lands or lands claimed by indigenous peoples from environmental degradation and alienation to third parties. Such measures would contribute to an atmosphere of good faith and constructive spirit in the negotiation process.

26. Effective measures for implementation, dispute resolution, amendment and enforcement of land settlements and agreements should be provided.

27. There is serious need for training, education and the required resources so that indigenous peoples may enter negotiations processes fully informed and technically equipped about the whole spectrum of implications of land rights negotiations. Training and education should also figure prominently in settlements implementation.

28. The equal participation of indigenous women should be reflected in all aspects of negotiation and implementation of land agreements.

29. There is a need to inform the non-indigenous public about the significance of indigenous land rights for the very survival of indigenous peoples and respect their human rights. Land agreements are a way of building new constructive relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

30. Governments are urged to consider the establishment of impartial mechanisms to oversee and facilitate fair and equitable conclusions to land claims processes and the implementation of land agreements, including international mechanisms as necessary.

31. In its consideration of the establishment of a permanent forum of indigenous peoples, the United Nations General Assembly should consider whether the forum could play a constructive role regarding problems pertaining to land rights.

32. The United Nations should prepare a study involving the direct participation of indigenous experts on the issue of extinguishment of land rights and its implications with a view to recommending new approaches in this area with particular regard to the recognition and implementation of rights.

33. The United Nations and its specialized agencies should consider providing technical assistance to states and indigenous peoples to contribute to the resolution of land claims.

34. The World Bank should consider providing loans to indigenous peoples directly, in particular in relation to collectively owned land.

35. The United Nations system, before funding demarcation projects, should have adequate consultative mechanisms at all stages of the planning and implementation of projects.

36. The I.L.O Committee of Experts should clarify the interpretation of Article 14, paragraph 1 of I.L.O. Convention No. 169.

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38. It should be recognized that indigenous resource management ensures the sustainability for future generations and is rich in practical applications of wild life, fish and habitat conservation.

39. Parties in land rights negotiation should make particular efforts to ascertain and act upon the views of elders in these matters.

40. International cooperation in support of the administrative management of their lands and resources should be done in full cooperation with indigenous peoples.

41. Indigenous peoples should participate in decision making and policy regarding land, resources and development at international, regional, national and local levels, including UN processes such as the CSD and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

42. The implementation of sustainable development should take fully into account Indigenous Peoples' values, knowledge and technologies, in order to ensure resources for future generations.

43. The United Nations, its Specialized Agencies and other Inter-governmental organizations should assure that indigenous peoples cultural diversity, traditional values and ways of life are protected in terms of Agenda 21 and the institutions established for its follow up.

44. Where the division of indigenous lands and attempts to divide these lands through individual titles as well as the existence of land privitisation policies menace the material and cultural survival of indigenous peoples this is a matter of grave concern.

45. Governments should welcome, encourage and open up trade among indigenous peoples and other parties from different countries and facilitate such trade.

46. For the purpose of developing resources of indigenous peoples and communities, States and Inter-governmental organizations which provide international aid for such purposes, should make best efforts to provide development assistance through organizations of indigenous peoples.

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47. The United Nations, in the framework of the International Decade, should consider holding further consultations, workshops and seminars relating to indigenous land rights and interests focusing on issues such as the negotiation process, co-management regimes and other matters.

48. The Expert Seminar requests that the present report be submitted to the fourteenth session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations and annexed to the Secretary-General's report on the International Decade to be presented to the fifty-first session of the General Assembly and that it be published and given the widest possible dissemination.

49-55: Additional recommendations for the UN system based on the text submitted by the Expert Roger Plant to be included.


Final unedited version prepared by Preston Hardison from a document released by the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. The electronic version has been checked for errors, but this is not an official copy and any errors remin the responsibility of the typist. For more information, please contact the WCIP.

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