U.S. Government is an Unprecedented No Show at Human Rights Hearing

Guest Commentary

Published March 26, 2017
WASHINGTON – At the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Tuesday, March 21st, 2017 participants and independent members alike deeply regretted the troubling and unprecedented lack of appearance of the United States at a hearing convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C. The hearing focused on President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Orders and their impacts on human rights in the U.S. Until this hearing, sources indicate that for at least the last 8 year the U.S. had not missed a hearing of IACHR, a principal, independent body of the OAS.

As this was a regular session of the IACHR, the U.S. was not the only country expected to participate in the hearings scheduled from March 15-22. The IACHR also reviewed human rights situations in Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, and Argentina. Other countries like Columbia, Cuba, and El Salvador also faced scrutiny on Tuesday while situations in Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela were reviewed Wednesday.

The International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) was among six organizations selected to testify on the impacts of Trump’s Executive Orders. Testimony by the selected organizations covered the administration’s attempt to ban immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries; its immigration enforcement and detention policies; and its push to fast-track infrastructure projects. IITC presented testimony focusing on the President’s Executive Order of January 24, 2017 “Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects.” The expressed intent of this Order is to “streamline and expedite, environmental reviews and approvals for all infrastructure projects,” including pipelines.

The IITC informed the IACHR that the President also issued two related Memorandums specifically paving the way to expedite the permitting of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines, which are strongly opposed by Indigenous Peoples and tribal nations. In addition, both the Order and Memoranda fail to acknowledge or recognize, and in fact directly violate, the rights of the impacted Indigenous Peoples including free prior and informed consent regarding development projects that affect their lands and waters.

IITC also informed the IACHR that as a direct result of the President’s actions, the U.S. Army announced, on February 7, it would grant final easement to finish Dakota Access, dismissing an intended environmental impact study and cutting short a public comment period associated with it. The Army had also previously stated its intention to consider an alternative route that would not threaten the Tribes’ sacred sites, water supply, and Treaty rights.

Had the U.S. been in attendance on Tuesday, the government would have had the opportunity to directly respond to the IITC’s position that the January 24th Executive Order and Memoranda deny Indigenous Peoples’ right to due process, violate federal law, treaty and trust responsibilities, and disregard international human rights norms, principles and standards and to which the U.S. is obligated.

Of particular importance for the IACHR and the U.S. to note are recent recommendations of UN Treaty Bodies to the United States and provisions in the United Nations and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirming self-determination; free, prior, and informed consent; the preservation of sacred sites and religious practices; and Treaties between Indigenous Peoples and States. The IITC detailed these recommendations and provisions in its written submission to the IACHR.

The administration’s lack of engagement at the IACHR, like the President’s Executive Orders, demonstrates a deep lack of respect for human rights and the institutions established to protect them. While the IACHR does not have enforcement mechanisms, for example, it is clearly mandated to promote human rights in all OAS member States and examine complaints or petitions regarding human rights violations.

Full respect for human rights, at least in theory, is a foundational element of “American solidarity” as expressed by the OAS Charter. In the past, the U.S has claimed to champion these ideals, however; when Tuesday’s IACHR no show is juxtaposed with the U.S. State Department’s recent announcement that it will review its participation in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, these are indeed troubling signs for Indigenous Human Rights Defenders everywhere.

The very public disregard for human rights that the United States is now displaying will have far-reaching and increasingly detrimental impacts on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially those who are opposing energy development projects that target their lands, waters and sacred places, without their consent, in the U.S. and its insular territories. As Indigenous Peoples continue to confront these rising challenges, we will need to stay unified, strengthen our alliances, and creatively rethink our options towards effective solutions.

Roberto Múkaro Borrero is a board member of the International Indian Treaty Council, President of the United Confederation of Taíno People, and a co-founder of the Caribbean Amerindian Development Organization.

Review the full IITC statement presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, March 21, 2017

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