The overall concern with ILO Convention 169 is often listed as the dual challenge of promoting its ratification and enhancing effective implementation. This article offers a critical appraisal of the dual challenge by unpacking calls for clarity, guidance and implementation, while exploring the underlying politics of negotiation, interpretation and institutional boundaries potentially undermining the role of the Convention as an instrument of social justice. On the one hand, three decades of implementation have demonstrated the value of international frameworks and standards in helping frame national rights debates. On the other hand, there is a constant risk of lowering the bar and ultimately perpetuating the very inequalities the Convention was set-up to challenge. If indigenous peoples have long employed a ‘cuckoo effect’ relying on the nesting, reporting and filing of representations by others, this article identifies policy and institutional points of leverage to strengthen engagement with indigenous peoples in the ILO world of work.