UN representative meets with various Native American tribes about indigenous rights

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. (Photo courtesy of UNSR Victoria Tauli-Corpuz)

Representatives of Native American nations and tribes are in Washington D.C. today as part of a series of actions to put indigenous issues on the national political agenda. Standing Rock Sioux leaders led a prayer march Friday morning while drawing attention to the intersection of indigenous sovereignty rights and environmental protection.

Oil could start to flow through the nearly $4 billion, four-state Dakota Access pipeline as early as next week; Wednesday a federal judge turned down a bid to block work on the last leg of project.

Meanwhile, indigenous activists and their allies are marching in Los Angeles to call on the City Council to cut financial ties with Wells Fargo over the bank’s financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline project. So far three cities have taken divestment action: Seattle, Santa Monica and Davis, California.

A UN representative who focuses on indigenous issues around the world just spent two weeks in the U.S. visiting Native American tribes. Victoria Tauli Corpuz met with the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo people where they discussed concerns over oil and gas exploration and uranium mining. Then she headed north to the Fort Berthold Reservation and saw the gas flares of the Bakken oil fields. Jim Kent spoke with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People about what she plans to file in her official report.

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Jim Kent: And then that led you eventually to, earlier this week, you went to Standing Rock and visited with folks up there, and you also went to the tribal college up there and spoke. What was your main purpose for going to that area in North Dakota?

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz: Well, you know, I was invited here to the United States, actually, upon the request of Chairman David Archambault. I met him in Geneva last July, of 2016, and he invited me to come but I told him that I can only come if it will be upon the invitation of the U.S. government, because if I do an official country visit I can make a report about what I have seen, which may be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council. So, I got the invitation from the U.S. government and, of course, one of the key areas that I will visit will be the Standing Rock Sioux, because that has been an issue that has been happening for a year almost and it’s important to see what the situation is like there.

JK: Could you tell me, what were your impressions from what has taken place up there at Standing Rock with regard to that pipeline going through?

VTC: I think that, for me, I find it very unfortunate that the consultations have not been done with the tribes in Standing Rock Sioux, and even the Environmental Impact Assessment that was made by the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t reflect the concerns of the tribes, especially in relation to how their sacred places and cultural sites are going to be adversely affected by the pipeline. I think that it’s bad that no adequate or meaningful consultation has been done with them when, in fact, they will be directly affected by whatever the pipeline is going to bring in, whether this will be leaks or even the imposition of this pipeline over their sacred sites, you know, their cultural integrity and autonomy will be adversely impacted as well.

JK: Now, Lakota people that I’ve spoken to, what initially was brought up and remained a concern was the fact that this pipeline was – the first place it was supposed to be put across was Bismarck, predominantly white location that was going to be impacted. And when they complained about it, it was suddenly moved south to be not interfering with them at all, but then interfering with the tribal people. Were you aware of that and can you comment on that?

VTC: Yes, I was aware of that. In fact, I spoke as well with the governor of North Dakota and I raised this issue myself. I think that it’s really not – it’s very discriminatory to agree immediately when the white people are complaining, but even without consulting the tribes, they just decided to put a pipeline under their sacred sites in the river, which is the source of their drinking and irrigation water. That really is symbolic of what kind of discrimination is against indigenous people.

JK: In the Associated Press piece they brought up the concern that you had expressed presumably that you felt, and this was a big issue here among many people, Native and non, the use of force against the protesters. Would you want to comment on that?

VTC: Yes, I did see the videos of how the protesters have been treated and I thought that there was really an excessive use of force, which is not commensurate with the kinds of protests that they’re doing. There has not been really serious incidents of violence from the side of the water protectors and yet the kind of police operations against them were really overkill in terms of people being fired with water cannons, rubber bullets, dogs biting them and them being placed in dog kennels. I think these are all uncalled for and that’s not the way to deal with peaceful protest.

JK: And, in spite of that, I don’t know whether it was after you made that statement or before, but the North Dakota governor said he felt that the law enforcement used great professionalism and restraint.

VTC: Yeah, I really don’t know if that’s restraint. I’ve also been engaged in these kinds of mass rallies against some issues in the Philippines and I’ve never experienced being shot by a rubber bullet. I think that’s really very dangerous and, of course, water cannons in a situation where the temperature is freezing, is also very dangerous. I think those are not restraint, that’s just, for me, it’s really excessive and the situation doesn’t warrant those kinds of actions and equipment used against the water protectors.

JK: Now, so you’ve been here, you’ve visited with these people. Now what happens with regard to your visit here? You make a report and what happens?

VTC: I’m hoping that the Executive Order which allows for the continuation of the pipeline without even conducting an Environmental Impact Study, I hope that will be revisited and reviewed because the protests are still there, the issues that the people are lying down are still valid. If the pipeline is completed without taking into account those concerns raised by the indigenous peoples and others, then that’s very unfortunate. I hope that my report will influence somehow the decisions being taken by the government. The other thing is that I hope that the indigenous peoples will be able to use the recommendations that will come out from my report to also strengthen their own assertion of their rights. I know that the United States government might not give any value to it. If the U.S. has that position, then its form of authority in terms of saying that other countries don’t respect human rights, etcetera, will also be significantly diminished because they can not even apply those international human rights standards in their own country. What right do they have to be criticizing other countries doing similar things?

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She spoke with FSRN at the conclusion of a recent mission to the United States at the request of Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault.

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