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Seneca Nation Urges International Mechanism to Resolve Treaty Violations

Seneca Councilor Delivers Statement at UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

For the first time in its history, the Seneca Nation of Indians has taken indigenous issues, including treaty rights, to an international arena.

Seneca Nation Councilor Nikki Seneca traveled to New York City from the nation’s Cattaraugus Territory in western New York to deliver a statement from the nation to the 10th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on May 25.

In its three-page statement, the Seneca Nation urges the Permanent Forum and the international community to examine federal and state obligations to respect and honor Native treaty rights and guarantees and calls on the Permanent Forum to draw up recommendations for the development of an international mechanism geared to resolving conflicts arising from treaty violations.

“We request that the Permanent Forum recommend that the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples act on the conclusions of the First and Second United Nations Seminar on Treaties, Agreement and other Constructive Arrangements between States and Indigenous Peoples, to examine the international nature of indigenous-state treaties and provide recommendations for developing a mechanism at the international level for resolving conflicts arising from treaties,” the councilor read.

The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was created in 2007 and consists of five independent human rights experts who are charged with providing the U.N. Human Rights Council with thematic expertise on the rights of indigenous peoples based on studies and research. The goal is to improve the living conditions of indigenous peoples. The Expert Mechanism coordinates its work with other U.N. efforts to promote the rights of indigenous peoples, including the Special Rapporteur on indigenous human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The first U.N. Seminar on Treaties, Agreements and Other Constructive Arrangements took place in Hobbema, Alberta in 2003. The second seminar took place in Samson Cree Nation, Treaty 6 Territory, Alberta, Canada, November 14-17, 2006. Seneca also asked the Forum to continue its call for a 3rd U.N. Seminar on Treaties, Agreements and Other Constructive Arrangements to be held in 2012.”

The statement also called upon the Permanent Forum to encourage the United States to move forward with full adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP). In December 2010 President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. was ‘lending its support” to the Declaration “but the United States, which to date has failed to formally adopt the document, has taken no meaningful action,” Seneca said.

The Declaration requires action, Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter said in a statement. Porter did not attend the Permanent Forum. “The U.N. Declaration on Indigenous Rights is a broad all-encompassing document that speaks to the many issues and concerns affecting Native people in the Western Hemisphere. The Seneca Nation looks forward to the day when the Declaration is not only adopted by the United States and all other major countries and nations, but when the goals of the Declaration are realized,” Porter said.

Primary among the Seneca Nation’s concern is the enforcement of the treaties. The nation’s statement to the Permanent Forum references the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua that guarantees the nation the “free use and enjoyment of Seneca lands.” Also mentioned is the 1842 Buffalo Creek Treaty that protects the Senecas from “all taxes, and assessments for roads, highways, or any other purpose.”

But more than 215 years after the 1794 treaty, New York state is still making efforts to encroach on the nation’s sovereign right to regulate trade and commerce on its Western New York territories, the statement says. After almost 25 years of the nation’s development of a tobacco economy, the state continues to try to impose and collect taxes on cigarettes sales made on reservation lands, the nation says.

“Given our current struggles with New York State, the Seneca, along with other indigenous peoples could benefit from the backing of the world community to recognize basic human rights and to uphold the significant treaty rights of Native people,” the Seneca Nation says in its statement.

The nation also urged the development of a legal framework enabling implementation of the Declaration’s Articles 37, 20 and 21, which address the interaction between treaty rights and Indigenous peoples’ right to economic development. Article 37 provides for indigenous peoples’ undiminished “right to the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements concluded with states or their successors and to have states honor and respect such treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.” Article 20 asserts indigenous peoples’ “right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.” And if deprived of their means of subsistence and development, indigenous peoples are entitled to just and fair redress. Article 21 maintains indigenous peoples’ right, without discrimination, to improve their economic and social conditions, including in the areas of education, employment, vocational training and retraining, housing, sanitation, health and social security and that states will take effective or special measures to ensure continuing improvement of indigenous peoples’ economic and social conditions.

“The right to development is a key aspect of treaty rights,” the councilor said. “On behalf of the Seneca Nation, I urge the United States to honor and respect its treaty obligations with indigenous peoples, which includes respecting the right to economic and social development and the right to develop natural resources, and to work with its treaty partners to implement the Declaration as equals, on a nation-to-nation basis. The U.N. Declaration supports our drive for economic justice.”

Although the presentation to the Permanent Forum was the Seneca Nation’s first foray into the international arena, it’s unlikely to be its last.

“It is clear that taking our treaty arguments to the international level is the next necessary step, the councilor said. “The Seneca Nation will continue to defend our sovereign status, defend our treaty rights, and call attention to the need for New York State and the federal government to honor our treaties. The United States is our treaty partner and it has an obligation to uphold the treaty protections. The world community must be made aware of the standing obligations and commitments to Native people.”

Last week a delegation of twenty students from the Salamanca High School attended the Model U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and presented their own statement Courtney Crouse, a Seneca student at the high school, delivered the statement on behalf of the delegation in New York City. The students’ statement focused on the need for free, prior and informed consent in the wake of major construction projects such as dams that have had major negative impacts on indigenous peoples and communities.