Ever since Keith Harper became the first member of a federally-recognized American Indian tribe to be appointed to a U.S. ambassadorship, the United States has diligently pursued its commitment to make violence against indigenous women a topic of global discourse. Harper, Cherokee, was appointed U.S. Representative and Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2014.
Most recently, the U.S. hosted two events dealing with violence against indigenous women and children at the Council’s 29th session in Geneva, Switzerland, which ran from June 15-July 3.
A panel discussion moderated by Harper, “Ending the Scourge of Violence Against Indigenous Women,” included government, UN and civil society experts, among them Jodi Gillette, Standing Rock Sioux, former White House Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs and now policy advisor at Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP. Gillette also presented remarks at an event hosted by the Permanent Mission of the United States to the U.N. and co-sponsored by the U.S.-Africa Group. Side events are those not on the official program for the session; both of these took place June 22.
Gillette focused her remarks on U.S. efforts over the past five years to better protect indigenous women and children, specifically the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which could serve as examples of best practices worldwide.
She said the landmark TLOA “allowed for stronger prosecutorial and sentencing authority for tribes. After meeting certain judicial standards such as providing public defenders and hiring law trained judges, tribes finally could sentence members of federally recognized tribes to sentences longer than a year for serious crimes such as murder, rape and repeat DUI offenses. Under the Major Crimes Act [of 1885], tribes previously would have to wait for the federal authorities to [prosecute] serious crimes. As of January, 2015, nine tribes have met all the requirements and have implemented the extended sentencing authority under TLOA.”
The VAWA reauthorization, Gillette told the panel, “included provisions that restored the authority of tribes to prosecute and punish non-Indians who perpetrate certain crimes of domestic violence against Native women in Indian country.”
With both the TLOA and VAWA, she said, “The United States recognized that the jurisdiction and powers of tribes had been so diminished over time that Native American victims, especially women and children, faced impossible pathways to safety and justice.
“However, even with these two significant achievements in the past five years, the United States continues to face myriad challenges in this regard. Several reports have been issued by the U.S. calling for increased funding, stronger victim services, and full authority for tribal governments to prosecute all crimes committed by non-Indians. Tribes to this day cannot prosecute non-Indians for child abuse, rape and other serious crimes against women and children,” Gillette said.
Gillette said the international standards for recognizing and prosecuting violence against indigenous women and children are not acceptable. “We believe the Human Rights Council is a place where we can talk about the importance of restoring the inherent rights of Indigenous governmental institutions as a best practice. We can also bring to light the gravity of the problems and speak honestly about the past and how it is intrinsically connected to our present.”
Speaking before the second panel, Gillette pointed out that “rates of domestic violence are highly correlated with rates of trauma experienced by children.” She quoted First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks at the launch of the Generation Indigenous initiative in April:
“Poverty and violence didn’t just randomly happen to this community. These issues are the result of a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse. … Given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian country are facing today. And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it – we own this.”
Harper has put a lot of work into combating violence against women since he assumed the ambassadorship, building on foundations laid by the Indian Law Resource Center, the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund over the years.
On June 24, 2014, he gave a joint statement on behalf of 35 countries on eliminating violence against indigenous women and girls. The statement said those states supported initiatives to “enable and empower Indigenous Peoples to better address these issues themselves by providing resources, adopting legislation and policies, and taking other necessary steps in an effort to stop the cycle of violence that affects them.” It also called for the issue to be considered at the upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.
The outcome document for that conference, which took place in September, included a commitment to intensifying efforts, in cooperation with Indigenous Peoples, to prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against Indigenous Peoples, particularly women, children, youth, elders and persons with disabilities and invited the HRC to consider examining the causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women and girls.
Gillette noted that the U.S., in consultation with American Indian tribes, has been working to bring other indigenous issues to the U.N., including the repatriation of cultural patrimony and human remains and the elevation of the status of tribal representatives at the U.N. itself. It is significant, said Gillette, that the U.S. State Department and the U.N. Human Rights Council are now responding to issues of concern to tribes.