Helena group working with U.N. committee on violence

February 23, 2008 | Helena Independent Record article by Marga Lincoln

More than one in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

And 80 percent of the assaults will be committed by non-Indians.

These startling statistics, based on U.S. Department of Justice statistics, have caught the attention of a United Nations committee meeting this week in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Indian Law Resource Center in Helena is part of a working group of Native American organizations that have brought this issue before the U.N. committee.

These crime statistics first grabbed headlines when Amnesty International issued a report last year, "Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA," which led to Congressional hearings.

"American Indian and Alaska Native women experience sexual violence at two and a half times the rate of all other women in the United States," reads the report to the U.N.

"The statistics are so horrendous and so shocking that CERD (the U.N. committee) wants to hear about it," said Lucy R. Simpson, a staff attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center. "This is just based on crimes that have been reported."

The situation is believed to be much worse because rapes frequently go unreported, she said.

"Report of the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples," the report submitted to the U.N., blames the violence on jurisdictional restrictions that prevent Indian nations from prosecuting non-Indians.

The U.N. committee meeting in Geneva is to monitor compliance of the 80 countries that have ratified the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Known as the CERD Convention, it was ratified by the United States in 1994.

"In order to achieve justice, survivors of sexual violence frequently have to navigate a maze of tribal, state and federal law. ... In some cases this has created areas of effective lawlessness, which encourages violence," reported Amnesty International.

"It's an issue that is a concern for all reservations in Montana and the fact that tribes do not have jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators against Native women," said Simpson.

Montana is home to seven Indian reservations.

Across the United States, many tribes are matrilineal, she explained.

"Women often form the backbone of Indian communities. The fact that this violence against women is at such high levels - it's an issue for all tribes."

This level of violence is traumatic to Native communities and impacts their ability to thrive "when that many women are suffering that type of violence," she said.

"It's almost a basic requirement; one of the first things a government needs to do is to protect its citizens. It's such a basic human right - the right to be safe in your own body. Rape is the ultimate violation of that. It's just hard to fathom it's happening across the United States."

The government has failed to provide adequate funding and resources to deal with prosecuting the crimes, Simpson said.

Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act in 2005. Title IX of the act specifically addresses safety for Indian women.

"The U.S. isn't denying it. It's their statistics. They're aware of it. Having Title IX and having Congressional hearings doesn't mean a lot until they do something," Simpson said. "Now we need adequate resources to implement it.

"A policy statement without any way to back it up doesn't do a lot."

By ratifying the CERD treaty, the U.S. is bound by it, said Simpson.

The U.N. is requiring the U.S. to answer questions about these concerns.

The Indian Law Resource Center is helping sponsor a delegation of native women with expertise on the topic to testify at the CERD session.

The U.S. administration is also sending a delegation to respond to 32 questions raised by the CERD, regarding a host of discrimination issues, Simpson said.

These concerns aren't limited to Native Americans, Simpson said, but range from the treatment of Hurricane Katrina victims to cases of discrimination against Arabs and Muslims.