Global Human Rights Defence

The Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples at UN Climate Change Conferences - A View at The History and Present

Sina Heckenberger
Human Rights and Environment Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence

Indigenous peoples (IPs) are affected first and worst by the climate crisis. They live in the most fragile regions of the earth such as the Arctic, low-lying islands, and tropical forests (Duyck, 2019, p. 4). Hence, they are among the most vulnerable groups to the impacts of climate change. At the same time, IPs play a vital role in protecting the environment and contributing to critical climate solutions. Due to their close relationship with nature, they developed knowledge and cultural practices enabling them to understand and adapt to changes in the environment. Moreover, they contribute immensely to biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of natural resources (Duyck, 2019). According to the World Bank (2021), IPs protect around 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Nevertheless, IPs have historically been marginalized in political processes around climate change (Comberti et. al, 2019, p.15). As a result, climate policies often do not consider indigenous concerns adequately, undermining their fundamental rights (Duyck, 2019, p. 6). However, the full and effective engagement of IPs in climate policy making, produces stronger, more effective, and more ambitious climate solutions (Duyck, 2019). In recent years, the UNFCCC has begun to recognize the role and asset of IPs in climate change mitigation and adaptation and made efforts to further the inclusion of IPs in international climate governance. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go to ensure the full and meaningful participation of IPs in accordance with their rights.

This article gives an overview of the historical inclusion of IPs in high level forums on climate change, like the Conference of Parties (COP). Furthermore, it traces persistent issues in the integration of IPs in climate mitigation and adaptation. Lastly, it gives recommendations on how to improve the standing of IPs in climate negotiations and their outcomes. 

The Evolution of Indigenous People’s Inclusion at the UNFCCC Conferences: 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty which was adopted in 1992. Its objective is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system” (UNFCCC, art. 2). Every year, the parties to the convention convene at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to assess their progress in achieving the goals set out in the convention and to agree on appropriate measures (UNFCCCa). 

Due to the state centric nature of the COP, indigenous perspectives are historically marginalized in the negotiations. As national citizens, IPs should be represented by their state at these climate conferences, however, states often fail to represent indigenous needs and priorities adequately (Comberti et. al., 2019, p. 26). As a result, IPs have sought other channels to stake their claim in climate negotiations.

 In the founding document of the UNFCCC, the Rio Declaration, IPs were recognized for their “vital role in environmental management and development” (Duyck, 2019, p. 7). Nevertheless, they were only involved in the UNFCCC negotiation process in 2000 (Duyck, 2019, p. 7).

In 2001, the UNFCCC recognized the Indigenous People’s Organization (IPO) as a formal constituency, among others including Youth, Business and Industry and Women and Gender. Constituencies are coalitions formed by like minded non-governmental organizations (Schroder & Lovell, 2012, p. 27). The main functions of the IPO include exchanging official information between the constituency and the secretariat, assisting the secretariat in effective participation at intergovernmental meetings, workshops, and other limited access meetings, coordinating interaction among observers, and providing logistical support to constituents (UNFCCCb). This status gave IPs more access to formal resources, speaking rights, and designated office space (Belfer et. al., 2019, p. 15). Constituencies, like the IPO, have observer status which gives them certain rights at the conferences. Next to observing official negotiations they can organize and participate in side events, host exhibits and hold meetings and informal discussions at social events. Furthermore, they can make statements in plenary meetings, submit written proposals, hold press conferences and engage in protests or advocacy (Schroeder & Lovell, 2012, p. 27).

In 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) was passed , which gave further impetus for the inclusion of IPs. A range of articles in the declaration directly refer to indigenous rights in the context of climate change (Duyck, 2019, p. 7). In relation to representation, the UNDRIP recognizes the rights of IPs to participate in decision making (Article 18), the obligation of states to consult with IPs (Article 19), and the right to self-government and autonomy (Articles 3 and 4) (Comberti et al., 2019, p. 17). Subsequently, in 2008, the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) was established and assumed the role of IP’s constituency. Its function is to come into agreement on a common voice for IPs in the UNFCCC negotiations (Duyck, 2019, p. 2). Since its emergence, the IIPFCC called for more inclusion of indigenous perspectives in the UNFCCC processes (Duyck, 2019, p. 8). In one of its first declarations, it claimed that the existing international mechanisms did not ensure adequate participation in and contribution of IPs in discussions around the UNFCCC (Doolittle, 2010, p. 288). 

In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement built momentum for the tighter integration of observers in the conferences (Bäckstrand et. al, p. 2017, p. 562). The Agreement recalled the need for all parties to respect and promote the rights of IPs when taking climate action (Duyck, 2019, p. 8). As a result, the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) was adopted (Sherpa, 2019). This marked a procedural achievement for IPs, since it upgraded IPs from observer status to having a formal, permanent, and distinct space within the UNFCCC. Until the adoption of the LCIPP in 2015, “Indigenous peoples’ roles and contributions were hardly heard by state parties and decision makers” (Sherpa, 2019). Unlike the IPO and IIPFCC, the LCIPP is a platform to give input into the negotiations process as a facilitative working group (Belfer et al. 2019, p. 27). 

 The following years showed progress in the inclusion of IPs. At the COP22 negotiations relationships between IPs, key governments and the COP secretariat were strengthened (Ibrahim & Lee, n.d., p. 4). At the COP23, IPs achieved more visibility through the IPs pavillon and more influence on the negotiations, for instance through the Indigenous Peoples global-government dialogue, which facilitated more direct dialogue with government negotiators (Ibrahim & Lee, n.d., p. 7-10).

In 2018, the LCIPP officially started operating through the Facilitative Working Group (FWG) (Sherpa, 2019). It is mandated to implement the three functions of the LCIPP: knowledge, capacity for engagement, and climate change policies and engagement (Duyck, 2019, p. 25). The first goal is about strengthening the knowledge, technologies, practices, and efforts of local communities and IPs in climate change. Secondly, it provides a  platform for the exchange of experiences and best practices on mitigation and adaptation between IPs and other stakeholders in climate change (LCIPP webportal, timeline). Thirdly, it aims to enhance the engagement of local communities and IPs in the UNFCCC process (LCIPP webportal, background).  

IPs were represented by numerous observing NGOs and the LCIPP at this year’s COP. 2021 marks an important point in the pursuit of meaningful participation of IPs in climate governance. Because COP26 was cancelled last year, 2021 was the first opportunity for the FWG to implement its work programme (LCIPP Web Portal). However, there were numerous barriers for IPs to actively participate in the negotiations, making it one of the most exclusive COPs of the past two decades (Taylor, 2021). Covid 19 vaccine, visa and quarantine regulations made it impossible for many IPs to attend the COP (Taylor, 2021). According to Ghazali Ohorella (2021), an indigneous activist, participation of IPs at this year’s COP is at a historical low. Moreover, civil society is locked out of plenaries, unable to observe or lobby the negotiations (Villasenor, 2021). These hurdles greatly impede further progress towards equitable climate governance.

Persisting issues:

Despite the developments in the past two decades, there are still significant barriers to the full and meaningful inclusion of indigenous voices, needs and priorities at international climate governance. IPs face ongoing challenges at climate negotiations, which can be categorized under material, procedural and recognition based constraints (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 26). 

Material constraints are mainly the lack of finance and resources which negatively impacts the attendance, representation and participation at COPs (Comberti et al., 2019, p. 16). Other factors like visa and travel regulations pose further obstacles to attendance (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 19). Even if IPs have the financial resources to attend the conference, access to badges remains a problem because of the formal and restrictive registration process of such (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 19-20). Badges are highly important because they determine which parts of the conference delegates are able to attend. Lastly, IPs have less access to knowledge and are in the majority inexperienced in negotiation (Comberti et al. 2019, p. 16). In addition, there are significant language barriers. Capacities for translation in the working groups, contact meetings and indigenous caucus are limited (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 20).  Even for fluent English speakers, bureaucratic and technical jargon makes it difficult to follow and influence negotiations (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 20). 

Procedural constraints include gaining access to and influencing the negotiation space (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 21). Many negotiations happen behind closed doors, inaccessible to observers. States maintain the power to decide whether meetings are “relevant” to IPs and whether they are allowed to participate. Moreover, states decide individually whether to consult IPs in the formulation of national positions (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 23). This highlights a big power imbalance between parties and IPs observer groups. 

Lastly, many IPs lack adequate recognition by other participants (Belfer et al. 2019, p. 24). This is largely based on false perceptions of the legitimacy of indigenous knowledge systems (Comberti et al., 2019, p. 16). Many IPs report experiences of tokenism and ongoing discrimination (Belfer et. al. 2019, p. 24). According to indigenous participants, they “need to constantly defend and reaffirm the basic legitimacy of their presence and demands to other parties” (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 24). In addition, these recognition based constraints reduce IPs’ access to resources, thereby compounding material constraints (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 20).


To combat marginalization at the COP, organizers need to address the many material constraints faced by IPs. Increasing the capacity and access to funding and resources are crucial to improve IPs representation (Comberti et al., 2019, p. 28). Hence, IPs suggest a “restructuring of financial streams, toward increasing the autonomy and voice of IPs at the UNFCCC” (Comberti et al., 2019, p. 15). On top of that, organizers have to allocate more space and time for IPs to speak at the conferences (Grosse & Mark, 2020, p. 166). Language and terminology should be made more accessible to local communities, for instance by providing more translation (Grosse & Mark, 2020, p. 164). 

Overcoming procedural constraints necessitates a restructuring of the UNFCCC process aimed at significantly improving the negotiation power and agency of IPs (Comberti et al. 2019, p. 26). Currently, the representation of indigenous interests in decision-making strongly depends on the political influence of IPs on their governments as well as parties’ political will to include IPs (Brugnach et al., 2014, p. 5). In accordance with their right to self-determination, indigenous leaders suggest promoting IPs to full member status at the UNFCCC, to level the power imbalance between observers and states (Comberti et al., 2019, p. 15). “Horizontal, relational and participatory organizing models are better suited to promoting the involvement of marginalized communities” (Grosse & Mark, 2020, p. 166). 

IPs still experience the discrimination of indigenous knowledge by western science and scholarship, as well as inequality in recognition from other stakeholders in climate negotiations. To shift more power to indigenous voices, IPs suggest drawing directly on community knowledge and experience instead of imposing top-down climate solutions (Grosse & Mark, 2020, p. 164). For instance, this can be made possible by employing IPs as experts in working groups and decisions on adaptation and loss and damage” (Comberti et al, 2019, p. 15). As highlighted earlier, indigenous knowledge and their experience at the frontlines of climate change is invaluable for adaptation and understanding the impacts of climate change.

Lastly, to move away from a policy of recognition towards a policy of meaningful inclusion, it is imperative to promote a culture of respect for IPs in society (Combertzi et al., 2019, p. 28). In this regard indigenous rights, as stipulated in the UNDRIP, are fundamental. In accordance with the UNDRIP, states are obliged to respect and protect the rights, livelihoods, and knowledge of IPs at the negotiations and outcomes thereof (Comberti et al., 2019, p. 15). 


After more than two decades of indigenous involvement in the UNFCCC, engagement with indigenous voices, needs, and priorities in decision-making is slowly expanding (Belfer et al., 2019, p. 14). From the IPO as the first representative group of IPs to the IIPFCC and the LCIPP, IPs have led several initiatives to carve out space for themselves and their concerns in climate negotiations. Despite some progress, the full and meaningful inclusion of IPs is yet to be realized.  Material, procedural and recognition based challenges, continue to impede the full and effective participation and representation of IPs, which was aptly demonstrated by the most recent COP in Glasgow. Nonetheless, the participation of IPs in negotiations play a critical role in ensuring the recognition of indigenous rights in the COP outcomes (Johnston & Tauli Corpuz, 2010, p. 3). Moreover, improving IPs participation at the COPs would lead to more effective and just climate solutions.

Readers are encouraged to read the other two articles in this series, “Climate Change Induced Migration, Conceptual and Legal Overview. An Update in the Light of COP26.” and “Tracking the COP Approach to Gender”.


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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
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Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

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João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

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Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

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Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

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Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
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Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

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Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

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