UN Working Group, Navajo Nation Collaborate on Human Rights Issues

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has stepped up its presence in the international human rights community, by calling out two businesses for failing to respect basic human rights. In response, a United Nations working group has pointed to continuing human rights issues in the United States, particularly with regard to Native American communities.

On April 27, in an official visit to the United States, a United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights met with the Navajo Nation’s human rights experts and others in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Navajo representatives reported on two situations facing the Navajo people: Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort that has begun a much-opposed project to spray treated wastewater on the sacred San Francisco Peaks, and predatory lending issues surrounding the lending group Santander Consumer USA.

During the meeting, Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, explained to the UN representatives how the San Francisco Peaks are sacred but besieged, and referenced reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the United States’ commitments to uphold indigenous peoples human rights.

Later, Lee shared the NNHRCs latest initiative to investigate auto predatory sales and lending. He cited disadvantages for tribal clients like language barriers, and recommended capping interest rates as one of several ways to protect Navajo customers.

“The overall objectives were to raise awareness of these issues, and advocate for implementation of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights … in areas where they may have not yet been considered,” Lee said. “The meeting was very useful, as it was the first of its kind.”

The UN working group met with the Navajo representatives as part of a series of meetings to investigate human rights issues in several areas. For example, they also researched banks and lending institutions in New York, and coal surface mining operations in West Virginia.

Although the UN has sought input from the NNHRC in the past, this is the first time the two agencies have conducted a meeting to address specific areas for improvement in the business sector.

“The United Nations is progressive when addressing human rights,” Gorman said. “A new model is businesses’ responsibilities to protect, respect and remedy human rights.” 

Such a meeting also falls in line with the Navajo organization’s mission, which includes interfacing with local, state, and federal governments and with national and international human rights groups.

The United Nations group expects to publish a report of its findings from the trip by June of 2014.

In their initial response, representatives issued a summary in which they pointed out human rights deficiencies in dealings with indigenous peoples in both the government and the corporate sector.

“While several federal initiatives and measures to protect the rights of indigenous peoples have been put in place in the United States in recent years, many stakeholders have indicated that more needs to be done to … protect the rights of indigenous peoples with regards to impacts of business activities,” their statement reads. “We notice that when it comes to contexts such as those of the Native Americans, the weakness of protection afforded by the state against human rights violations is often regrettably reciprocated by commensurately poor understanding of the intent of corporate responsibility in respecting human rights. This results in significant challenges to turn appropriate human rights policies into effective practice.”