Indigenous Reports to the UN on Human Rights, Racism in US
Gale Courey Toensing
Indigenous nations, tribes, individuals and organizations now have a guide on how to prepare a “shadow report” for an upcoming review of the status of human rights and racism in the United States.
The International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) has written a training manual on how to prepare submissions for the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a treaty monitoring body that reviews racial equality and non-discrimination for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The convention, one of nine major human rights treaties, was ratified by the U.N. General Assembly in 1965 and came into force in January 1969. All states are required to submit regular reports to CERD on how they are implementing the Convention. The CERD examines the reports and makes recommendations, but it doesn’t rely completely on the state’s possibly biased perception of its progress toward justice for all; it also reviews alternative or “shadow reports” from “civil society actors.”
IITC’s 30-page training manual, which is available on its website, was developed to provide information to indigenous “civil society actors” on how to utilize the CERD and participate effectively in the process. Andrea Carmen, the IITC’s executive director urged indigenous tribes and organizations to participate. “This will be an important opportunity for Indigenous Peoples to make their own submissions, or ‘shadow reports,’ providing updates on current conditions, threats and violations. These submissions can also include information about the status of implementation by the U.S, of the CERD’s previous recommendations.”
CERD’s last report issued in February 2008 found racial discrimination alive and thriving in 26 areas where the U.S. government fell short on its obligations, beginning with its definition of “racial discrimination,” which was cited as inadequate in an earlier report. The U.S. government’s definition of racial discrimination in federal and state legislation and in court practice does not line up with the Convention’s definition, the report says. The Convention requires states parties to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination “in all its forms, including practices and legislation that may not be discriminatory on purpose, but in effect.”
The manual is also a mini-course on the history and development of international human rights laws. It begins with a brief history on how the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination came about. In 1948 after World War II’s “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” the U.N. adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights – the international peace organization’s founding human rights standard that human rights are equal and inalienable for “all members of the human family.” While member states ratified the Declaration, they considered it to be a “moral” or “aspirational” document that was not legally binding (later, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama would describe the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as “aspirational”). So the U.N. began drafting covenants, conventions and protocols to strengthen the Universal Declaration and make it binding among member states. That work resulted in the adoption of the ICERD in 1965. To date 175 states have ratified the Convention. The U.S. ratified it in 1994 and is legally bound to uphold and implement it.
The manual outlines the Convention’s broad definition of racial discrimination and what states are required to do to repudiate and eliminate it. And it includes CERD’s general recommendation on Indigenous Peoples, which among other things, calls on states “to recognize and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples to own, develop, control and use their communal lands, territories and resources and where they have been deprived of their lands and territories traditionally owned or otherwise inhabited or used without their free and informed consent, to take steps to return those lands and territories. Only when this is for factual reasons not possible, the right to restitution should be substituted by the right to just, fair and prompt compensation. Such compensation should as far as possible take the form of lands and territories.” The manual says the recommendation “is of central importance because it addresses a range of vital issues including land, resources, cultural, language and free, prior and informed consent” and advises Indigenous Peoples to refer to the CERD recommendation when preparing shadow reports.
That’s not the only helpful hint in the manual. It also advises those preparing shadow reports to highlight the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and link its implementation to compliance with the International Convention to Eliminate Racial Discrimination. “The UNDRIP provides an important framework and ‘minimum standard’ for presenting and interpreting the human rights obligations contained in the ICERD relationship to Indigenous Peoples. Using it in this context further encouraged the CERD to apply the Declaration in its assessment of State compliance,” the manual advises.
Subjects raised in previous shadow reports include the destruction of sacred sites; denial of religious freedom for Indigenous prisoners; physical and sexual violence against Indigenous women; U.S. imposition of membership criteria on tribes; export of banned pesticides by U.S. corporations; the continuing generational legacy of boarding school policies; land appropriations; treaty violations, lack of access to equal justice under the law; imposed development such as uranium mining and other extractive activities and environmental racism; and denial of traditional subsistence and right to food.
A section of the manual gives detailed step-by-step instructions on preparing a shadow report from cover letter to where the report should be sent.
The IITC is a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 in South Dakota that works for sovereignty and self-determination for Indigenous Peoples and the recognition and protection of their human rights, treaties, traditional cultures and sacred lands.