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UN Denounces Abuse of Free Assembly Rights for Water Protectors Standing Against DAPL

Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, condemns the "excessive force" used against DAPL water protectors as an abuse of their right to free assembly.
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The militarized response to water protectors’ efforts to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred burial grounds and underneath a key water source constitutes “excessive force” that is directly at odds with the right to assemble peacefully, a key United Nations expert has ruled.

The use of “rubber bullets, teargas, mace, compression grenades and bean-bag rounds while expressing concerns over environmental impact and trying to protect burial grounds and other sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe” should in itself stop the pipeline’s construction, said the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a statement on November 15.

Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said that depriving arrestees of basic necessities during their lockup infringes on their human rights. So does lumping those who were taking peaceful action in with those whose actions veered toward the more aggressive, he said.

“Marking people with numbers and detaining them in overcrowded cages, on the bare concrete floor, without being provided with medical care, amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment,” said Kiai in the UN statement. “The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right, and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.”

Kiai added his voice to two others from the UN, as well as echoed demands from the U.S. government that Energy Transfer Partners stop work around Lake Oahe.

“I call on the Pipeline Company to pause all construction activity within 20 miles east and west of Lake Oahe,” declared the Special Rapporteur.

After Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II testified in Geneva before the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, that body chastised the U.S. for paying too little attention to the rights of Indigenous Peoples. In addition, in late October Grand Chief Edward John (Tl’azt’en) and Roberto Borrero (Taino), UN Rapporteurs for human rights, visited Standing Rock to witness the situation firsthand. Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz also came out against the treatment of the water protectors.

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Tauli-Corpuz and several other UN officials endorsed Kiai’s November 15 statement: Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune; the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, John Knox; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Michael Forst; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Léo Heller; and the current Chair of the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, Pavel Sulyandziga.

The U.S. government has yet to issue the last easements for drilling under the Missouri River, which means that construction should be halted for the time being. Nevertheless, the company has reportedly moved its drill to the drill pad it has constructed right next to the water, and it has sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for not granting those easements.

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“This is a troubling response to people who are taking action to protect natural resources and ancestral territory in the face of profit-seeking activity,” Kiai said. “The excessive use of State security apparatus to suppress protest against corporate activities that are alleged to violate human rights is wrong and contrary to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

In fact those very authorities are supposed to be doing the exact opposite, Kiai said.

“People feel that their concerns are being ignored, and it is their right to stage peaceful assemblies so that these concerns can be heard,” he said. “The authorities have an obligation to actively protect that right. The rights of cultural heritage defenders have to be respected and protected.”