American Journal of International Law, Vol. 92, No. 3 (1998)

“Indigenous Peoples” in International Law: A Constructivist Approach to the Asian Controversy

Benedict Kingsbury

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Over a very short period, the few decades since the early 1970s, “indigenous peoples” has been transformed from a prosaic description without much significance in international law and politics, into a concept with considerable power as a basis for group mobilization, international standard setting, transnational networks, and programmatic activity of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations. The development of “indigenous peoples” as a significant concept in international practice has not been accompanied by any general agreement as to its meaning, nor even by agreement on a process by which its meaning might be established. As the concept becomes increasingly important, international controversy as to its meaning and implications is acquiring greater legal and political significance. This article considers how to understand “indigenous peoples” as an international legal concept. To sharpen the focus, the discussion concentrates on the current practical dispute as to whether and how the concept of “indigenous peoples,” formed and shaped in regions dominated by the history and effects of European settlement, might or should be adapted and made applicable in Asia and elsewhere. Both elements of the term – “indigenous” and “peoples” – are contentious, but the discussion here will focus on indigenousness.