UNITED NATIONS - A United Nations committee took the rare step Friday of assailing the U.S. government for violating Native Americans' land rights and said Washington had run afoul of an international anti-racism treaty.
The independent Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said Friday it had ''credible information alleging that the Western Shoshone indigenous people are being denied their traditional rights to land'' and asked federal authorities to cease all activities on tribal land--including efforts to set up commercial mining operations.
Native American advocates hailed the finding as a victory.
''This is a tremendous victory for the Shoshone people,'' said Laura Inouye of the aid group Oxfam America. ''The UN decision acknowledges the U.S. government's violations of Shoshone civil, political, economic, and cultural rights.''
''''Hopefully, they will now be granted the justice that the US government has denied them for years,'' added Inouye, whose organization had backed the Western Shoshone.
Some non-natives also refer to the Western Shoshone as ''Snake Indians'' although in their own language tribe members are called Newe people.
U.S. officials were unavailable for immediate comment on the decision, which effectively challenged the U.S. government's assertion of federal ownership of 90 percent of Shoshone lands covering about 60 million acres and stretching across the states of Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and California.
The United States recognized Western Shoshone rights to the land under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that the pact gave Washington trusteeship over tribal lands, however. The federal government, saying that tribe members had abandoned traditional land tenure and practices and citing ''gradual encroachment'' by non-natives as evidence, has claimed much of the land as federal territory.
The Western Shoshone, in their petition to the UN panel, countered that ''gradual encroachment'' in fact took place as part of a U.S. policy to steal their lands, and that this constituted racism.
The 18-member UN panel of experts, set up to monitor global compliance with the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, last August asked Washington to respond to those claims. Federal authorities missed a year-end deadline to do so.
On Friday, the Geneva-based panel said Washington's claim to the land ''did not comply with contemporary human rights norms, principles, and standards that govern determination of indigenous property rights.''
The panel cited special concern over reported federal and legislative efforts to privatize ancestral lands, to turn them over to mining and energy companies, and to open a nuclear waste dump on tribal territory without consulting and over the objections of the Western Shoshone people.
It further assailed U.S. authorities for reportedly using arrests, hunting and fishing restrictions, grazing fees, and other measures to intimidate tribe members.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Washington-based Organization of American States, had issued similar findings in 2003.
U.S. officials and legislators, however, said the issue effectively was resolved by the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act of 2004, which they said a majority of the tribe's 10,000-odd members had endorsed and which provides for a settlement of around $145 million in exchange for the land.
Many Western Shoshone objected to the law, saying it violates the Treaty of Ruby Valley and offers compensation based on 1872 land prices of their land, and questioned the measure's legislative propriety.
Shoshone representatives said they went before the UN panel because they had exhausted all other legal options to prevent the U.S. government from taking over their ancestral lands, adding that federal operations there already had disrupted their traditional life and threatened their health and environment.
''This battle has been going on for quite some time, but we've seen a dramatic increase in the federal government and the companies' rush to finalize what they consider a settlement in order to get a hold of our lands for activities that are contaminating our water and our air,'' said tribal leader Steven Brady.
''We are very pleased that our rights are finally being taken seriously and we look forward to positive actions being taken by the U.S.,'' Brady added in a statement from Geneva.
Other tribal leaders regarded their prospects with caution.
''We are Shoshone delegates speaking for a Nation threatened by extinction,'' said Bernice Lalo, who also appeared before the UN panel. ''We have endured murder of our Newe people for centuries, as chronicled in military records, but now we are asked to endure a more painful death from the U.S. governmental agencies, a separation from land and spiritual renewal.''
Joe Kennedy, a member of the Western Shoshone delegation, voiced particular concern over federal plans to dump nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, which the Western Shoshone count as their land under the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
''Our people have suffered more nuclear testing than anywhere else in the world and they are continuing underground testing despite our protests,'' Kennedy said of the U.S. government. ''Yucca Mountain is being hollowed out in order to store nuclear waste. We cannot stand for it. This earth, the air, the water are sacred.''
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