United Nations Body Expresses Concerns about Racism in the United States, Calls for the US to apply the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Today, March 7th 2008, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) publicly released its recommendations in response to the United States’ Periodic Report which was submitted to the Committee last year.
A number of Indigenous organizations, tribes and communities, including the International Indian Treaty Council, filed alternative or “Shadow” reports for the CERD’s consideration in reviewing the US’ compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (“ICERD”). The ICERD is a legally-binding international instrument to which all State (Country) Parties, including the US, are accountable. Periodic reports are required to be filed by all State Parties to the ICERD.The CERD’s recommendations to the US reinforce the position of Indigenous Peoples and a range of international legal experts that the provisions in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13th 2007, apply to all UN Member states, even the four States including the US which voted against it. The CERD recommended that the Declaration be used by the US as a “guide to interpret the State Party’s obligations under the Convention relating to Indigenous Peoples”. Under international law, the Rights recognized for Indigenous Peoples apply to all Indigenous Peoples, whether or not they are “federally recognized” by the State.
The CERD also voiced strong concerns regarding environmental racism and the environmental degradation of Indigenous areas of Spiritual and Cultural significance, without regard to whether they are on “recognized” reservation lands, noting the negative impact of development activities such as nuclear testing, toxic and dangerous waste storage, mining and logging. The Committee recommended to the US that it consult with Indigenous representatives, “chosen in accordance with their own procedures – to ensure that activities carried out in areas of spiritual and cultural significance do not have a negative impact on the enjoyment of their rights under the Convention.” The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples to any development activity as well as legislative and administrative measures that may affect them, without regard to any “federal recognition.”
The Committee expressed concerns about the adverse effects of exploitation of natural resources in countries outside the United States by US transnational corporations, “on rights to land, health, living environment and the way of life of indigenous peoples living in these regions.” It “encouraged” the United States to take appropriate legislative and administrative measures to prevent transnationals registered in the United States, “from negatively impacting on the enjoyment of rights of indigenous peoples in territories outside the United States.” The CERD Committee also recommended that hold these corporations accountable, and, “to inform the Committee on the effects of transnational activities on Indigenous peoples abroad and on any measure taken in this regard.” This echoes the CERD’s finding in 2007 regarding the obligations of Canada to monitor human rights abuses carried out by Canadian mining companies.
In addition to the IITC delegation, Indigenous delegations representing the Western Shoshone Defense Project (including the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program from the University of Arizona), the Boarding School Healing Project, the Navajo Nation, the Cherokee Nation, the Teton Sioux Nation Treaty Council and Indigenous Peoples of Hawai’i, among others, also filed Shadow reports and were present for the examination in Geneva Switzerland. Representatives of the US government were questioned regarding the contents of its own report as well as the “Shadow reports” filed by Indigenous Peoples and a number of other groups on February 19th and 20th.
The CERD voiced strong concerns in response to information in received regarding rape and sexual violence against Indigenous women, particularly American Indian and Alaska Native women, noting the “insufficient will of Federal and state authorities to take action with regard to such violence and abuse.” It recommended to the United States, among other things, that reports of rape and sexual violence are independently, promptly and thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrators are prosecuted and appropriately punished.” The Committee further asked the United States report to the Committee on the numbers of victims, perpetrators, convictions and the types of sanctions imposed in its next periodic report.
The Committee requested the US to provide detailed information on the measures adopted to preserve and promote the culture and traditions of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander Peoples. The Committee requested information on textbooks and curricula for primary and secondary schools that should provide sufficient information on the history and culture of different racial, ethnic and national groups living in its territories.
The Consolidated Indigenous Shadow Report filed by the IITC on January 6th 2008 raised all of these and a range of other issues. It included data of the great disparities between rates of poverty and illness of Native Americans compared to the US population as a whole. The report highlighted that Indigenous men have life expectancies 10 years less than the general population, are incarcerated at much higher rates that the general population, and receive longer sentences than the general population.
The CERD raised serious concerns about the US interpretation of the ICERD, specifically its definition of racial disparities such as these as resulting from “socio-economic factors” as opposed to the systematic and institutionalized racism that the data reflects. For example, the US argued that Indigenous persons are incarcerated at a much higher rates than the general population and receive longer sentences because they commit more crimes, and not as a result of institutional racism within the judicial and prison systems. The CERD called upon the United States to review its definition of racial discrimination to include practices and legislation that may not be discriminatory in purpose but are discriminatory in effect.
Indigenous representatives attending the CERD’s examination of the US provided powerful and eloquent testimony about a range of human rights violations affecting them, which the US has not taken action to correct or prevent, as it is obligated to under the terms of the Convention. And in some cases, such as Treaty violations, land and natural resource appropriations, the US is directly involved in carrying out the violations.
IITC Board Member Lenny Foster, Diné (Navajo) and representative of the Native America Prisoners Rights Coalition, was a member of IITC’s delegation to the CERD. He observed during the examination that the United States was “in denial.”
Mr. Foster presented testimony to the CERD Committee on desecration of Sacred Lands and the denial of access to spiritual practice of Indigenous prisoners in the US: “Spiritual wellness and spiritual healing is paramount to the very survival of the Indigenous Nations of North America. There are effortsto prohibit and impede the spiritual access to the Lands considered Sacred. These Lands are being utilized by Indigenous Peoples for prayer offerings, vision quests, pilgrimage and ceremonies. Corporations cannot be allowed to prohibit access and to destroy and pollute and desecrate the Sacred Lands”. He provided examples to the CERD which included San Francisco Peaks (Arizona), the Black Hills and Bear Butte (South Dakota) and Medicine Lake (Northern California) and Mt. Graham (Arizona).
The Navajo Nation Delegation, led by First Lady Vickie Shirley of the Navajo Nation testified eloquently on violence against Indigenous women. First Lady Shirley and Virginia Davis of the National Congress of American Indians made a strong case that Indigenous women on reservations have little or no protection against abuse and under US law, as most tribal governments are denied the jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute abusers.
Larsen Bill of the Western Shoshone Defense Project Delegation and Charmaine White Face of the Teton Sioux Treaty Council Delegation testified to the Committee, making a strong case concerning environmental racism and the deadly pollution caused by mining on their ancestral and Sacred Lands. In March of 2006, the Western Shoshone approached the CERD and received a favorable response to its complaint that the US was not respecting their human rights, with reference to the denial of their ancestral lands. The had Committee called on the US to “take immediate action to initiate a dialogue” with the Western Shoshone and to freeze, desist and stop further harmful activities on Western Shoshone ancestral land until a final decision or settlement with the Western Shoshone is reached.
The CERD, in their Conclusion and Recommendations issued today, reiterated this previous decision “in its entirety,” expressed “regret” about the US’ lack of compliance with its previous recommendations, and urged the United States, “to implement all the recommendations contained therein” with regard to the Western Shoshone and the denial of their ancestral lands. The United States was called upon to again report to the Committee “within one year” on its follow up to their decision.
“It is important that all Native Peoples within the US know that they have rights that are recognized by international law even if the United States refuses to recognize them or act upon them,” said Alberto Saldamando, IITC General Counsel and delegation member. “Now it is not just us, but the international
community that has recognized that Indigenous Peoples within the United States are subject to racism on many levels and has called for effective steps by the US to remedy this situation. The IITC looks forward to working with other Indigenous Peoples and organizations to make sure that the US fully implements these recommendations, as it is required to under its legally-binding international human rights obligations. We will be watching closely to see if the US finally decides to become a country which operates under the rule of law”.
The CERD US Conclusions and Recommendations can be found online, at:
The Consolidated Indigenous Shadow Report is found at: