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U.N. Human Rights Committee Denounces U.S. Indigenous Policies

William Brennan Thomas

A leading United Nations human rights body has issued a report blasting the United States for its systematic abrogation of its treaties with Native Americans, stealing of reservation land, and the loss of billions of dollars of Native American money, among other things. It demanded that the United States grant American Indians and Native Hawai’ians the same basic protections under U.S. law that it grants to nonindigenous Americans.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee is a panel of 18 independent experts set up to monitor implementation of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR is one of two international covenants on human rights that form the cornerstone of an extensive series of internationally binding treaties. The United States ratified the covenant in 1992 and is therefore required to undergo periodic review by the committee. The most recent review relied upon submissions by nongovernment organizations, the testimony of a U.S. delegation, and a U.S. government report that was submitted seven years after it was officially due.

Of primary concern to the committee was the ability of the U.S. Congress to extinguish recognized tribal property rights without due process and fair compensation. This capacity stems from the 1903 Supreme Court decision Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock, which held that Congress has absolute authority to unilaterally negate treaties it has signed with Indian nations.

The Human Rights Committee found that the denial of Native Americans’ right to effectively control their lands and resources was a violation of Article 1 of the ICCPR, which recognizes “the rights of all peoples to self-determination and by virtue of that right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” Native rights are also protected under Article 27 of the covenant, which protects the rights of minorities to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language. The rights guaranteed in these two articles often require control and use of traditional land, a right the U.S. government has denied to American Indians for over a century. The committee demanded that the United States give Native Americans “greater influence in decision-making affecting their natural environment and their means of subsistence as well as their own culture.”

The report also expressed concern over “the concept of permanent trusteeship over the Indian and Alaska Native tribes and their land.” According to Tim Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, who made a presentation to the committee, “The relationship between the U.S. government and Indians is an involuntary permanent trusteeship with no accountability. The only other parallels are childhood or mental incapacity. But the difference is [that] those relationships end with age or compliance. Indians can’t end their relationship.”

The committee also cited the Department of the Interior’s mismanagement of so-called Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts, which hold accumulated income from land that was “given” to individual Indians when reservations were broken up in the late 1880s. The land was held in trust by the government, as was the income from mining, grazing, and other activities, but these accounts have been subject to a long history of corruption, incompetence, and outright theft. The abuse of IIM accounts has resulted in the loss of billions of dollars that belonged to native peoples. There are more than two dozen mismanagement cases pending against the government in U.S. courts.

The committee also determined that the government had not given enough information on the implementation of Public Law 103-150, which apologizes to Native Hawai’ians for the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i and requires the federal government to work toward reconciliation between the United States and Native Hawai’ians.

According to committee member Sir Nigel Rodley, a British law professor, “The delegates were reasonably happy discussing indigenous issues and had well-honed answers in terms of domestic policy, but those issues were not a major part of the dialogue; we were swamped by other issues.” Those other issues included the overbroad definition of terrorism in U.S. immigration laws, the existence of secret detention centers, the use of torture, poor prison standards, racial and sexual discrimination, and nearly a dozen other violations of the covenant.

The U.S. delegation, predictably, was dismissive of the committee’s complaints. The head of the delegation, Matthew Waxman, principal deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State, boasted, “Indeed, few countries in the world could claim greater protections of, for example, speech, press, association, or religion than the United States. The United States also historically promotes these same values around the world and continues to do so as part of the president’s Freedom Agenda.”

—William Brennan Thomas was an intern at Cultural Survival this summer

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