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Rights expert welcomes Vatican’s rejection of ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

Indigenous people of the Yanomami ethnic group, in a camp in Brasília, capital of Brazil, in 2018.
Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil
Indigenous people of the Yanomami ethnic group, in a camp in Brasília, capital of Brazil, in 2018.

Rights expert welcomes Vatican’s rejection of ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

Human Rights

The Vatican’s rejection of the 500-year-old Catholic decree used to justify the seizure of indigenous lands by colonial powers, known as the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, has been welcomed by an independent UN human rights expert as “an important step towards reconciliation and healing”. 

José Francisco Calí Tzay, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, expressed hope that governments will follow the Holy See’s lead, noting that its impact is still being felt today. 

‘Open wound’ 

“The doctrine of discovery is still an open wound for many Indigenous Peoples around the world,” he said. “It must be addressed as part of a reconciliation process between Indigenous Peoples and colonial States.” 

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The papal doctrine was used to claim indigenous territories in the Americas, Africa and elsewhere in the world.  

Mr. Calí Tzay commended the Vatican’s recognition of the harmful effects of colonisation, including the pain suffered by Indigenous Peoples.  He welcomed Pope Francis’s call to abandon the colonising mentality and promote mutual respect and dialogue. 

‘Important step’ 

“The Holy See has taken an important step towards reconciliation and healing with Indigenous Peoples by rejecting all concepts that fail to recognise their inherent human rights,” he said.  

“The doctrine was recognised as vesting a unilateral right of European colonial powers to claim superior sovereignty and rights over Indigenous Peoples’ lands and resources, based on their supposed lack of civilisation and religion.”  

He added that it continues to have a negative impact on indigenous rights in some countries. 

Tool of deprivation 

He said the Doctrine of Discovery provides a legal basis to unilaterally deprive Indigenous Peoples of their rights to title and ownership of their traditional lands and territories by States that continue to use this legal theory as part of their national law, legislation, and jurisprudence, particularly in relation to land disputes. 

The UN expert noted that this was among the root causes of intergenerational trauma suffered by Indigenous Peoples, as currently manifested in high rates of suicide among youth, over-representation in the criminal justice system, disproportionate violence against women and girls, and racial discrimination. 

Review and repudiate 

He urged all States that still uphold the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ to follow the Vatican’s lead in formally repudiating the decree and reviewing all jurisprudence and legislation that relies on it. 

Special Rapporteurs like Mr. Cali Tzay, and other UN Human Rights Council-appointed independent experts, are mandated to monitor and report on specific thematic issues or country situations, as part of the Council’s Special Procedures.  

They are not UN staff and do not receive any compensation for their work.