“Let us recognize and celebrate the valuable and distinctive identities of indigenous peoples around the world,” said United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in this year’s message for International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (IDWIP). To which he added: “Let us work even harder to empower them and support their aspirations.”

In addition to raising awareness about their rights, IDWIP is an occasion to recognize the achievements and contributions indigenous peoples have made to world issues, particularly in regard to environmental protection.

Indigenous populations have played a key role in helping the world build a more sustainable future. In fact, according to Ban Ki-moon, they are “powerful agents of progress”. Their very identity is inextricably linked with the land and they possess a deep understanding of their surrounding environment. This traditional knowledge has been vital in the fight against, for example, climate change. Scientists have used it to evaluate their climate-change models and scenarios.

Today’s celebration not only honours indigenous peoples, it also commemorates the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982, which later became a watershed moment for the protection of their rights.

The observance was originally meant to be celebrated for one decade, the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004), but the UN General Assembly chose to continue it for another 10 years, hoping to strengthen international cooperation over human rights, education, environmental conservation and development.

This year’s celebration marks the day’s 20th anniversary. The theme – Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous peoples – is an opportunity to reflect on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a key legal instrument adopted in 2007 (and the most comprehensive one to date), which sets international standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples. The declaration represents the culmination of two decades of work and is evidence of the international community’s commitment to adhere to these standards.

And yet, vast differences remain between the recommended practices and the current reality of indigenous people. Many groups are still vulnerable and struggling to stay on their land, while others have long been displaced and denied their traditional way of life.

The UN declaration represents an important development and will undoubtedly become a powerful tool in protecting human rights. But, as we celebrate today, several questions remain: how can we avoid waiting another 20 years to protect the fate of 370 million people? How can we ensure that states don’t ignore their rights?

This year will mark the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly, where indigenous peoples will convene to “share perspectives and best practices”. The meeting will take place on 22-23 September 2014 in New York City.

Author: Alexsa McKenzie is an Innu lawyer practicing business law and aboriginal law in Montreal. She is also member of the Montreal Hub of the Global Shapers Community.

Image: A member of the AmazonianTatuyo tribe plays music in his village in the Rio Negro (Black River) near Manaus city, Brazil, June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Andres Stapff