The following is a collection of background information and links on international law and indigenous peoples.
International law (IL) is a system of norms, customs, and binding agreements designed to regulate the behavior of nation-states. IL is dependent upon the notion of states and sovereignty (effective control of territory). Traditionally IL has been applied by states and international organizations to interstate actions; more recently it has been expanded to actions states take toward social groups, individuals, and corporations. IL was historically understood as the Law of Nations and did not include law for individuals, save for how states could legitimately subjugate or subsume so-called "uncivilized peoples" (i.e., peoples with "non-state" social organizations: clan, kinship, tribe).
In the West, formal codes of IL began with Roman laws to manage relationships with outsiders on the frontiers of the empire. IL developed into its modern form with efforts by European nation-states to consolidate control over expansive territories. This expansion was fueled by resource acquisition and motivated by a zeal to proselytize and convert in the name of Christianity. (See The Papal Bull, Romanus Pontifex and The Papal Bull, Inter Caetera).
Early IL commentators (e.g., 16th century Dominican clerics Bartolome de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria linked international law with Natural Law, as they incorporated so-called "uncivilized people" encountered in the "New World" into the IL discourse.
As colonial interests of Christian-European nation-states solidified in the "New World" and the institution of the nation-state itself became more fixed, the law of nations turned away from treatments of the "uncivilized" and focused nearly exclusively on interaction between states. (See, e.g., the early 17th century writings of the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius). This was seen as a turn from Natural to Positive law, from dictates of God and Nature to politics of man and state. It was a turn that left "non-state" indigenous peoples out of IL until the middle of the 20th century.
From the 17th century, IL largely denied a place for individuals or "non-state" societies, while at the same time anthropomorphizing the state. Peoples outside this legal abstraction had no voice or place in IL. The means for denying "non-state" voices were articulated in state policies and politics, rationalized by the theory of sovereignty. In the 20th century, this condition began to change somewhat, with an increasing array of bilateral and multilateral treaties, international organizations like the United Nations and the International Labor Organization, international justice institutions like the nascent International Criminal Court, and occasional places for the previously voiceless at policy-making tables.
As the 20th century ends, "non-state" peoples ("tribes"), non-governmental organizations (NGO's), transnational corporations, and international regulatory agencies all represent relatively recent entrants to IL discourse. All of these recent entrants exert themselves to participate in creating the evolving domain of norms, customs, and binding agreements that make up IL.