History of indigenous peoples within the ILO
A world longing for peace
In 1919, after the horrors of World War I, world leaders decided to form the League of Nations. By doing so, they hoped among many other things to prevent war and improve global quality of life. One of the measures taken to fulfil these goals was the formation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) whose main objective was to address social peace. With the words “there can be no lasting peace without social justice” this objective is clearly reflected in the ILO Constitution.
Exploited “native workers”
Looking into the conditions of workers around the world, the ILO soon realized that indigenous peoples were especially exposed to severe forms of labour exploitation. As early as 1921, the ILO began to address the situation of so-called “native workers” in the overseas colonies of the European powers. Increasingly, it became evident that these peoples had a need for special protection in cases where they were expelled from their ancestral lands and had become seasonal, migrant, bonded or home-based labourers. One of the outcomes of this recognition was the adoption in 1930 of the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention (No. 29).
In 1945, at the end of World War II, the United Nations was created and replaced the League of Nations. The ILO now became a UN specialised agency and began to widen its examination of the situation of indigenous workers. Throughout the 1950s, the ILO, with the participation of other agencies of the UN system, worked on the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention (No. 107), which was finally adopted in 1957. Convention No. 107 was the first international treaty dealing with the rights of indigenous peoples. It was eventually ratified by 27 countries, mostly in the Americas, but also in South Asia and in several African and European countries. The Convention covers a wide range of issues, including employment and occupation, rights to land and education in indigenous languages.
From Convention No. 107 to No. 169
As years went by, certain weaknesses in Convention No. 107 became obvious, particularly its underlying assumption that the only possible future for indigenous peoples was integration into the larger society and that others should make decisions on their development. With the growing awareness, organization and participation of indigenous peoples at the national and international levels during the 1960s and 1970s, these assumptions were challenged. Eventually, the approach of Convention No. 107 was questioned as being integrationist and calls were made to revise and update it. In 1986, a Committee of Experts in the ILO concluded that “the integrationist approach of the Convention was obsolete and that its application was detrimental in the modern world.” Convention No. 107 was revised and eventually it was replaced by Convention No. 169, which was adopted in 1989. Convention No. 169 is based on the respect for the cultures and ways of life of indigenous and tribal peoples and recognises their right to define their own priorities for development.
Convention No. 107 is now closed for ratification. However, it remains binding on those countries that have already ratified it, including countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in South Asia. In these countries, the Convention can still be used as an instrumet to guarantee indigenous and tribal peoples certain minimum rights.