Kamrul Hossain, Ph.D

A Right to Maintain Traditionally-developed Norms and Indigenous Peoples: What difference does it make in an ICT-driven globalized world?

Kamrul Hossain, Ph.D

Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law / Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland


Abstract: Indigenous peoples and their connection to nature and natural environment, and traditionally developed practices provide them with physical, mental and spiritual sustenance. However, as societies transform rapidly due to the influence of ICT-based developments, and endorse new norms within its functioning, often there is a fear of threats amongst the traditional communities, such as the indigenous peoples, that such developments may adversely affect indigenous culture and cultural sustenance. Against this background, this paper explores how traditional cultural norms form a part within human rights framework, and thereby are subject to be included within its framework in relation to the maintenance of culture and cultural rights pertinent to indigenous peoples’ way of life. The paper asks, whether the integration of modern and technologically advanced norms with the so-called “traditional” ones pose a threat to the traditional identities of indigenous peoples? The paper looks for an answer to this question by examining the developments perceived by virtue of the flow of information and communication technology (ICT) that may have an effect on traditional values held by indigenous peoples.

Keywords: Indigenous peoples; traditional norms; ICT-driven transformation; human rights;


Approximately three hundred and seventy million indigenous peoples across the world have their own way of living, distinct from that of others. They form unique communities having their own languages, religious beliefs and rituals, and their own ways of practicing their livelihoods. They are called by many names – in some countries, they are called indigenous peoples, whereas, in other countries, they are either called tribal peoples, ethnic minorities, first nations or aboriginals. Whatever the title used, these groups of peoples share common histories of marginalization, common struggles against colonization, common threats against their languages and cultures, and common interests in, and around, the lands they use, occupy or own. One of the most interesting aspects of indigenous peoples is that they enjoy being in natural surroundings and create spiritual relationships with nature. They develop unique norms, traditions and customary values that go hand-in-hand with both the preservation and conservation of nature. They maintain traditional knowledge generated by their ancestors and transmit this knowledge to the next generation. They create strong bonds amongst their members and are emotionally attached to each other in a relatively cohesive manner. Traditionally, the individualistic sense of identity is strange to them – they are tied to each other in groups and form group identities measured by their traditionally-developed values and norms.

Today, these groups of peoples are increasingly threatened due to various stressors – both natural and induced by other humans – such as the effects of climate change, economic globalization and demographic transformation. They have been living in their traditional territories for thousands of years and have been pushed gradually to relatively smaller territories even within their own homelands. As human settlements from the dominant societies marginalize them in their own homelands, the indigenous peoples of today in most of the countries in which they live have become minorities even within their own territories. In many cases, national assimilation policies have been found to be so effective that most indigenous peoples have been losing their unique identities as indigenous peoples – they have been losing their languages and their traditional practices in relation to the livelihoods and spiritual activities that they practice in their everyday lives. Against this background, this paper explores how a human rights framework informs a protection regime for the practice of tradition and traditional culture pertinent to indigenous peoples’ lives. The meaning of “traditional” requires a reconceptualization since societal transformation involves progressively newer and more modern methods being applied to the performance of everyday practices. Does the integration of modern methods with so-called “traditional” practices pose a threat to the traditional identities of indigenous peoples? This paper looks for an answer to this question by examining the developments perceived by virtue of the flow of information and communication technology (ICT) that may have an effect on traditional values held by indigenous peoples.

Traditions and traditionally-developed norms

Traditions and traditionally-developed norms are not pre-determined. They are formed inherently as individuals within a society develop relationships both between themselves and between themselves and their natural surroundings by connecting to, for example, lands, water, forests, plants, and so forth. These relationships tie individuals to a particular physical space and connect them with each other in mutually helpful relationships where they share identical interests driven by these relationships. They form a community. When considering indigenous peoples, often this community formation takes place in a physical space far from urban centres. The practices they perform in their everyday lives within that physical space guide them to engage with each other and behave in a certain manner. Traditionally, they are involved in nature-based activities in terms of their livelihoods and identify themselves as part their natural environment due to their proximity to that environment. The connections they have with the lands they inhabit are important to them – the land is their home, and home for them means just a shelter. Their land-based relationships provide them with meaning in life, which eventually becomes part of their culture. Hunting; fishing; gathering;, trapping; traditional-style, mountain-specific cultivation and farming; and the collection of food and resources from the natural environment are the primary means of sustaining a nature-based livelihood. The teachings they learn from their elders and share with the next generation are the promotion of justice through the use of the lands and waters they occupy and/or otherwise use. They go to the land for their roots, they go to the land for medicine, they go to the land for spirituality, they go to the land for survival and they go to the land for ceremonies of celebration. Such practices and the proximity to the natural environment help form certain values and norms that govern their everyday lives. Indigenous peoples call them customary norms or customary laws to which they are loyal and respectful.

The relationship between traditions and modernization appears to be contradictory – the former rules out the latter and vice versa. This is the case because the process of modernization and the integration of modern activities into livelihood practices often clash with traditional practices. This clash offers an articulation of the fear that the rapid flow of information via communication technology and the integration of innovation in livelihood practices will produce new norms contrary to traditionally-held, value-based norms. Hence, it is argued that these developments jeopardize values inherent in traditionally-formed identities. However, e identity creation is not fixed to certain values. Transformations in societies due to technological advancement offer new norms and practices, which, over time, modernize the identity of an existing group. A group of people is part of the same group with a reformed identity, a group which has not necessarily lost the uniqueness of its identity.

Human rights framework for the protection of traditions

A framework for human rights is a standard that is set universally for all individuals as human beings at large. A number of internationally agreed upon instruments provide specific norms, principles and rules to guarantee the protection and promotion of human rights in relation to the practice of traditions, which is often interpreted as the practice and enjoyment of culture. The instruments cited regularly include the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These three documents are jointly referred to as the international bill of rights. This bill of rights sets a general standard. However, there are a number of other human rights instruments targeting either regions or individuals and groups belonging to certain segments of the population, for example, women, persons with disabilities, children, migrants, indigenous and tribal peoples, and so on.

Given that the focus of this paper is indigenous peoples, the bill of rights explains how traditions and traditional norms are recognized within the framework of human rights law, as applicable to indigenous peoples. While the international bill of rights in itself does not refer to the rights belonging to indigenous peoples as groups, there are a few provisions that are applicable to indigenous peoples in connection with their traditional practices. The most referenced provisions are Article 27 of the ICCPR and Article 15 of the ICESCR. Both articles focus on the practice and enjoyment of culture. Before the conceptualizing the term “culture”, it is important to see what these articles suggest. Article 27 of the ICCPR reads as follows:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

Article 15(1) of ICESCR reads:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:

(a) To take part in cultural life…

As mentioned, neither of these articles articulates “indigenous peoples” precisely but rather as individuals who hold the rights. Obviously, an individual within an indigenous group is being addressed when it comes to the enjoyment of culture and taking part in cultural life. However, the central question is whether the article can be interpreted as connecting to the whole group as the collective holder of the right. Article 27 refers to linguistic, religious and ethnic minorities and the right to enjoy culture “in community with the other members”, which provides a general understanding that the right has to have a group component in order to be enjoyed effectively. Often, therefore, this article is referred to as being a minority protection provision within the general scope of human rights law. Similarly, Article 15 (1) of ICESCR recognises the rights of individuals to take part in cultural life. While this article does not mentioned any ethnic or minority groups, but addresses individuals, it is rather obvious that a “cultural life” cannot be defined for a single individual in isolation, i.e., without the involvement of others within a particular society. Therefore, it is no wonder that these articles create a general framework for the protection of group rights. To further elaborate on this thought, it is important to provide a conceptual understanding of culture before exploring how traditions and traditional norms transform to give a culture a meaning as an integrated whole.

Culture itself is very subjective – it has a broad formulation. It includes a number of elements which are usually understandable but imprecisely defined, such as arts, habits, practices and so forth. As a result, no concrete definition of culture has so far been used as a reference point. However, as we refer here to the human rights framework, we try to show how culture is conceptualized within the framework of human rights. The UN Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities Francesco Capotorti asserted that “culture” should be interpreted broadly to include customs, morals, traditions, rituals, types of housing and eating habits, as well as the arts, music, cultural organizations, literature and education. The treaty-monitoring bodies of the ICCPR and ICESCR also interpret the articles referred to above, where the term “culture” has been conceptualized to provide a meaning so that a protection regime can be articulated in a rather clear fashion. The Human Rights Committee (HRC) – the treaty-monitoring body of the ICCPR – tested the question of the enjoyment of culture on a number of occasions. In its General Statement (a descriptive analysis of the meaning of particular provisions and the scope of their applicability, often termed as an authoritative document), case law jurisprudence and its concluding observations in response to country reports submitted on the implementation of various provisions of the Covenant, the HRC elaborated the concept of culture. General Comment No. 23 states that culture manifests itself in many forms, including a particular way of life associated with the use of land resources such as fishing and/or hunting and so forth. While interpreting Article 15 (1), General Comment No. 21 of the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (the monitoring body) states:

“[c]culture, for the purpose of implementing article 15 (1) (a) [of International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights] encompasses, inter alia, ways of life, language, oral and written literature, music and song, non-verbal communication, religion or belief systems, rites and ceremonies, sport and games, methods of production or technology, natural and man-made environments, food, clothing and shelter and the arts, customs and traditions through which individuals, groups of individuals and communities express their humanity and the meaning they give to their existence, and build their world view representing their encounter with the external forces affecting their lives.”

Now, the original question was about transformation – can culture be transformed and adopt new norms or restructure norms within its ambit? Cultural sociologists suggest that culture is not static. It develops over time as society changes and adapts to new lifestyles. At the same time, traditions adjust to these transformations based on the disruptions taking place in society constantly. The HRC, for example, endorsed this idea in its interpretation. It suggested that traditionalist understandings of culture are not jeopardized when adapting to the process of advancement. According to the HRC, the right to enjoy one's culture cannot be determined in abstract terms but has to be placed in context. Its practice with the help of modern technology does not prevent a people from invoking Article 27 of the Covenant. In its case law jurisprudence, for example, in the Apirana Mahuika case, the HRC indicated clearly that a cultural nature exists even when tradition is disrupted through adopting and integrating new methods in traditional practices, such as in the fishery practices of the Mauri community in New Zealand, which according to the HRC, is justified by the flexibility of ongoing and post-modern development.

Culture and cultural practices forming traditions, as referred to herein, have been presented on many occasions in regard to ethnic minorities, of whom indigenous peoples are the crucial segment, given that they form the minority in most of the countries in which they live. Moreover, indigenous peoples are also protected by other regulations at both the international and national levels. While, at the national level, indigenous peoples, sometimes also known as the tribal population, receive special legal protection, the recognition of their specific rights is also acknowledged in the international legal framework, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169. The Convention provides rights related to lands and natural resources. The rights as such are reflective of their culture and cultural practices. The most ground breaking document concerning the rights of indigenous people is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was adopted in 2007 and is endorsed universally today. The document reflects all sorts of rights in the recognition of the traditions and traditional practices that the indigenous peoples enjoy while also promoting culture within the political and social processes of which indigenous peoples themselves are an active part.

Intersecting ICT-induced global norms with traditions

The spread of information and communication technology (ICT) is the reality which does not set indigenous peoples apart. The global flow of information through technological innovation allows them to understand various other cultures and interact with them. At the same time, indigenous communities themselves are also able to share their own cultures and traditionally-driven norms with the rest of the world. The availability of various devices, such as smart phones, smart computers, tablets and so on, offers faster learning and sharing of issues and the ability to integrate them into the everyday lives of people. As people are more and more connected with each other beyond their physical cultural spaces through electronic and social media and as they interact constantly, there is a natural influence forcing individuals to entertain alternative thoughts on many issues. However, this influence is a two-ways track. It is not just indigenous peoples who are influenced by virtue of their communication with the rest of the world. It is also the rest of the world, who learn and come to understand indigenous cultures and traditions as well as promote a realization of the worldviews and traditional knowledge held by indigenous peoples.

As materialistic worldviews are on the increase due to the impact of globalization on human interactions, it is often argued that traditions and traditional culture are being ruined and that a new global culture has emerged instead due to faster development based on ICT. Certainly, there is tension, particularly concerning the maintenance of traditions developed over time in indigenous cultural practices. However, societal transformation driven by technological innovation and improvement is increasingly touching indigenous cultural traditions and gradually become part of their culture in a transformative form.

The influence is felt both in developing new lifestyles as well as in adopting new methods in the practice of traditional culture. New lifestyles are created as traditional social norms (which are often conservative) interact with emerging global cultural norms such secularism, gay rights, feminist movements and so on. An interaction, such as in virtual communication, offers incentive for changes in mind-set. In traditional communities, e.g., the indigenous communities, there is a fear of losing an identity given that the identity has been formed based on those cultural practices. While it is true that a belief system is directly or indirectly transformed in this kind of interaction, the continuity of cultural promotion, i.e., the reformation of the culture, is a natural development. Such reformation presents modernization in a social system, which does not necessarily disregard all the existing elements within traditionally-held norms. For example, traditional music is performed using modern instruments and in a modernized style, thereby serving the changing tastes of communities. Although these changes are not actually imposed, they are adapted to the existing ones, and are often demanded by the members of such communities.

Similarly, the traditional livelihood practices are, in many cases, replaced by modern activities, but, surely, in indigenous communities, they are not abandoned. Rather, new techniques and methods are integrated with such practices to further modernize them. This modernization process makes life easier since indigenous people, like any other people, are part of human communities. They would want to go along with the developments taking place. However, sustainability is a concern for them, as they consider that humans have a stewardship role with regards to Mother Earth. This variation in understanding gives indigenous peoples the roles of responsible actors. Therefore, integration of innovation into their practices is not contrary to what are called traditions. For example, for the Sámi people – an indigenous population in four countries in the European North in Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden – reindeer herding as a livelihood provides for their physical and cultural sustenance. They as a people created their eternal relationship with the reindeer, and this relationship holds special significance for their spirituality and cultural identity. The practice today is performed by mostly modern techniques. For example, the use of GPS tracking systems and digital mapping of the landscape on which reindeer graze offers benefits in the practice of culture and traditions while modernizing those cultural practices further. Cultural is an integrated whole. Traditional culture is not meant to be a primitive culture – it is meant to include reforming traditions with outputs from technological and modern innovations. Therefore, ICT-induced global norms only supplement the promotion of existing cultural traditions to their most matured form.


This paper explored whether ICT-induced global development may have consequences for indigenous peoples’ rights in their everyday lives in relation to enjoying their unique identities based on their traditional cultures. While investigating this question, the paper presented the value of indigenous cultures in terms of maintaining worldviews embracing the earth and its social-ecological system. This worldview has been reflected as part of a right to enjoy and practice culture within the framework of human rights. As faster changes occur in ICT-induced globalization and impact the culture and cultural life of indigenous peoples, the traditional cultures of indigenous peoples, even though they interact with global norms influenced by technological advancement, are not being replaced by new cultures. What is taking place is rather a reformation of existing tradition as a natural continuation of practicing a culture and cultural life of a community, as guaranteed by the human rights framework.