Indigenous Rights and Claims on Waters

We have done it with lands. Through international and national laws, we have recognized the ownership rights of the Indigenous Peoples over lands that they have traditionally occupied and used. Then, why not with waters?

There are pressing issues and disputed claims over waters on which the states take precedence over Indigenous Peoples. There are two international documents that deal with these issues, the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Just a historical background. After 22 years of deliberation and debate, the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples was finally adopted by the General assembly in 2007. The Declaration presents substantial rights and claims of the Indigenous Peoples who, at times, have been marginalized and excluded  from the the schemes of society.

Article 26 of the Declaration states that "1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired; 2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired; 3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned."

Although it is not explicitly stated, "territories" would encompass waters that are traditionally used for subsistence. It is resoundingly clear in the Declaration that the Indigenous Peoples have rights and claims on waters as much as on lands and resources.

Even neighboring countries that share water territories have been unable to agree on how to manage and oversee the use, development, and conservation of the disputed territories. Examples of these cases are the Spratlys group of islands claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia, and Senkaku/Diaoyutai Island claimed by Japan and China.

How much more if the dispute is between indigenous peoples and a state?

This is the case of the Rotenese of southeastern Indonesia when they contend with Australia their fishing rights on and historical connection with Ashmore Reef and Cartier Islands. To highlight this issue, an International Conference on Indigenous Claims on Waters: What Do the Indigenous Convention and International Law Documents Say about this? will be held in The Hague, Netherlands on 18 March 2011. There will also be case presentations of other similar issues in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

If you or your organization is interested to sponsor this event, please contact Yetty Haning at

For registration, kindly email


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