US May Back Indigenous Rights, Without Accountability for Them

Well before America was known as the land of plenty, it was a
land of plunder. About four centuries after the first colonial
encounter set off a wave of destruction, the continent's displaced
indigenous communities are still looking for home. They remain
largely alienated from international frameworks protecting the
rights of native peoples.

Well before America was known as the land of plenty, it was a
land of plunder. About four centuries after the first colonial
encounter set off a wave of destruction, the continent's displaced
indigenous communities are still looking for home. They remain
largely alienated from international frameworks protecting the
rights of native peoples.

Lately, the White House has inched toward reconciliation by
boosting funding and social services in Indian Country. And in an
unprecedented pivot in the international arena, the Obama
administration even suggested it may endorse the
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
(which the
U.S. rejected in 2007 despite overwhelming international

Yet a close reading of the administration's words and deeds
reveals plenty of room to wriggle out of diplomatic promises.

In anticipation of the U.S. government's Nov. 5 appearance before
a U.N. working group charged with evaluating member states' human
rights records, the U.S. Human Rights Network has published
a massive compilation of reports
documenting an array of
alleged abuses, many of them perpetrated against migrants and
native groups. The
violations documented
include racial profiling and
environmental devastation of tribal lands by industries like
uranium mining.

In recent years, many
indigenous rights groups have appealed to international bodies
like the United Nations
. But beyond the public-shame
, such moves exert little direct leverage over
government, especially since the U.S. can easily wriggle
out of international standards and oversight

In Indian
Country Today
, Suzanne Jasper of First
Peoples Human Rights Coalition
found some interesting verbal
sleights in Washington's response to a recent U.N. resolution on
the "Right to Development." The U.S. rejected a paragraph stating
that signatories were committed to "recognizing the critical need
to address the negative impact of poverty and inequity on
indigenous peoples by ensuring their full and effective inclusion
in development and poverty eradication programmes."

Apparently, that language made Washington uneasy, as Jasper

In explaining the negative U.S. vote, the U.S.
representative claimed concern "by the appearance of extraneous
topics in the draft. ... such as indigenous peoples, among others."
Given that indigenous peoples globally and nationally have often
been described as the "poorest of the poor" and that violations of
their right to development are at the heart of the poverty which
has been imposed on them, it is shocking to hear a representative
of the State Department claim that indigenous concerns are
"extraneous" and a valid reason for the United States to vote
against the Right to Development....
On a key issue, the U.S. is maintaining its same decades-old
problematic position. This denial is particularly important to
indigenous peoples, since the fundamental right of
self-determination is a "right of peoples," articulated in
essential human rights Covenants, and is therefore a collective
human right.

The White House tends to invoke indigenous people's rights when
trying to soften America's image as a global hegemon. Washington's
own recent human rights review
--a 29-page outline of race and
gender inequalities in voting rights, education, and health care
issues, among others--spends a few paragraphs on President Obama's
efforts to "consult" with tribes on entrenched problems like
poverty, disease and violent crime in native communities.

But the government's definition of "consultation" doesn't quite
fly with many tribal advocates. After presenting a litany of
corporate environmental harms, a coalition
of native advocacy organizations concludes

The United States as a matter of practice, does not
consult in good faith with Indigenous Tribes, Peoples and Nations
affected by these and other devastating projects on lands outside
of reservation boundaries, even though many of these Sacred Areas
are of great cultural and spiritual significance to Native Peoples
and are subject to Aboriginal Title as well as legally binding
Treaties between Indigenous Peoples and the State.

This isn't news to anyone in Washington. Thirty years ago, the
Supreme Court called out the government for violating the 1979 Ft.
Laramie Treaty with the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota of the Great
Sioux Nation. On the issue of the seizure of tribal lands, the
court stated that "a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable
dealing will never, in all probability, be found in the history of
our nation."

The USHRN report argues,
"A just, fair process in the US to address, adjudicate and correct
these and other Treaty violations with the full participation and
agreement of all Treaty Parties has never been established."

The Obama administration has boasted of pushing through measures
to address chronic problems in Indian Country. Ambassador to the
United Nations Susan Rice announced at a Geneva conference various
policies targeting native communities, including better funding
for Indian Health Services, $3 billion for economic recovery and
more support for tribal law enforcement to combat sexual violence.

In the courts, community groups recently celebrated a legal
between the USDA and Native American farmers,
which offered them hefty financial restitution after decades of
alleged discrimination in farm-lending programs. That follows
another landmark
settlement to compensate Native American households
by the government's land trust system.

Despite these incremental gains, native peoples' sovereignty is
still compromised by a lack of direct recourse in the
international arena. Even if the administration endorsed the
indigenous people's rights declaration, they wouldn't be obligated
to enshrine those principles in domestic policy or jurisprudence.

At minimum, the declaration stands as an aspirational framework for
holding Washington accountable. So what matters most is not what the
government has grudgingly pledged to do, but how activists choose to
and defend
the declaration as a global contract. Native
people's sovereignty doesn't derive from a document, but from a
fundamental sense of justice. So when communities go to court to
challenge environmental pollution or occupy ancestral grounds to
resist industrial land grabs, they move in pursuit of inalienable
rights. And the government can follow or get out of the way.

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