Words Into Action

Four years ago, on December 16, 2010, when the United States issued its statement of support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it joined the world community in welcoming a new era of human rights. 

For the first time in the history of international human rights, indigenous peoples were seen as equals, entitled to all the rights guaranteed to all other human beings.  Today, we commemorate the battles fought and won by this and previous generations to secure a permanent place for indigenous peoples in the world community. 

Affirming Rights

When President Obama announced the United States’ support of the UN Declaration, he said, “what matters far more than words are actions to match those words.”  This was a historic year of action for indigenous peoples in the United States.  In September, the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples made key decisions supported by 100 tribal nations in the United States to affirm the rights in the UN Declaration and take actions to put them into effect, including:

  • Initiating a process to create a permanent body in the UN system that will monitor and encourage implementation of the Declaration;
  • Considering options for a General Assembly decision to make it possible for tribal and other indigenous governments to participate in UN meetings on a permanent basis;
  • Intensifying efforts to end violence against indigenous women; and
  • Recognizing the importance of indigenous peoples’ sacred places.

The details of these decisions will be worked out by various UN bodies in the next 22 months, including the Human Rights Council.  Importantly, just before the World Conference, the United States appointed Keith Harper as the United States Ambassador to the Human Rights Council.  A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Ambassador Harper will play a key role in putting the decisions of the Conference to work.

Aligning Actions and Policies

The United States does appear to be taking steps toward bringing its laws and policies in line with the UN Declaration.  With legislative victories like passage of the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act and, most recently, the repeal of Section 910 of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA), which excluded Alaska Native Villages from key protections, tribal nations are gaining good ground in protecting their economies and their citizens. 

Administratively, agencies are revising their tribal consultation policies in keeping with Executive Order 13175 of 2000 (Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments) and the Presidential Memorandum of 2009 (Tribal Consultation).  Some agencies reference the UN Declaration in their revised policies and, at least when dealing with sacred places, several agencies work together to promote some of the rights in the Declaration.

Accountability Matters

The United States was called to task on its human rights obligations in 2014 like no other year before.  Treaty monitoring bodies reviewed its human rights record for compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention Against Torture. 

In March, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern over the rate of domestic violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in the United States and recommended full and effective implementation of VAWA, including measures to assist tribal nations.  In August, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on the United States to intensify its efforts to prevent and combat violence against Native women and to ensure all cases of violence are appropriately investigated and prosecuted.  The United States was also reviewed by the Committee Against Torture in November, and will be subject to a more comprehensive review in 2015 during its second Universal Periodic Review.  In October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, during a follow-up hearing of the Jessica Lenahan case, noted little to no progress since its initial recommendations to the United States in 2011, and again called on the United States to address the legislative and structural causes of violence against women.

The United States has indeed come a long way to support indigenous rights since it first voted against the UN Declaration in 2007.  Yet, in 2014, international human rights treaty bodies have identified several areas in need of improvement.  Indigenous peoples know there are many more gaps in implementation and are working to realize certain rights in the UN Declaration.  Following the World Conference, some indigenous leaders are proposing an Executive Order calling for the executive branch to review federal administrative laws and practices for consistency with the UN Declaration.  Much work therefore remains in the coming years to bring federal laws and practices in line with international human rights standards, and to ensure words do become effective actions that bring lasting improvements to the well-being of tribal nations. 

*Karla E. General (Mohawk) is a Staff Attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, D.C. Her work supports the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Center’s effort to end violence against indigenous women through the Safe Women, Strong Nations project.  Karla is a graduate of Syracuse University College of Law and earned her Masters in Sociology from the Maxwell School at Syracuse.  She is admitted to practice law in New York.