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Native Americans Still Suffer ‘Profound Hurt,’ the UN Says


apache dancers
A Yellow Bird Apache dancer performing at the Human Rights Council. A report on the rights of indigenous people in the US says they are still hurting from the past. JEAN-MARC FERRE/UN PHOTO

The relationship between the United States government and the United Nations machinery of human rights reporting has been a troubled one. Over the years, numerous UN rights monitors – called rapporteurs — have often been unwelcome visitors, sometimes refused permission to visit institutions like prisons or courts in some American states.

The reception got a little warmer beginning in the 1990s, and now a full report is being prepared for the Human Rights Council on the rights of indigenous people on the US mainland and in Alaska and Hawaii. The monitor, who has just completed a 12-day tour of indigenous homelands, is an American: James Anaya, a professor of human rights law and policy at the University of Arizona.

His report coincides with an indigenous people’s forum going on at the UN in New York, where nearly 2,000 participants from across the world are taking part in a two-week session on the status of their rights and other markers of well-being. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is convening a high-level event on May 17 to cap off the forum, commemorating the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Anaya, the rapporteur, was born in California into a family rooted in what is now New Mexico, long before it became part of the US in 1853. The fact that he is an American cuts two ways. On the one hand, it saves him from being branded by the most intemperate critics as a foreigner who has no business making judgments about American handling of human rights issues, though he could not arrange a meeting in Congress this year, so apparently there are still problems.

On the other hand, Anaya, a lawyer with a Harvard degree, is a well-known advocate and litigator for indigenous people across the hemisphere and may not be considered an impartial observer – as he would be, for example, in work he has done in places as far afield as Thailand. He has been the UN rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people since 2008.  His final report to the Human Rights Council, probably at a session in September, will be scrutinized.

The US endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in December 2010, and President Obama himself acknowledged shortcomings in upholding the rights and serving Indian communities in a report to the Human Rights Council in 2010.

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In a preliminary paper released on May 4, Anaya, who visited both rural and urban indigenous communities in Alaska, Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington State, said that he “heard stories that make evident the profound hurt that indigenous peoples continue to feel because of the history of oppression they have faced.” He concluded that this past lies behind the “present-day disadvantage for indigenous people in the country.”

“This history— as is widely known but often forgotten — includes the dispossession of the vast majority of their lands and resources, the removal of children from their families and communities, the breakdown of their traditional structures, the loss of their languages, the breaking of treaties, and numerous instances of outright brutality, all grounded on racial discrimination,” Anaya wrote.

UN rapporteur on indigenous people's rights
James Anaya, an American who monitors the rights of indigenous people for the UN. JEAN-MARC FERRE

In his paper, Anaya previewed his recommendations to come: “Continued and concerted measures are needed to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones, in consultation and in real partnership with indigenous peoples, to conform to the Declaration [of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] with a goal towards strengthening indigenous peoples’ own self-determination and decision-making over their affairs at all levels.”

Anaya, who thanks the State Department and federal officials in Washington, D.C., for their help in arranging his mission and sharing information, concludes: “It is evident that there have still not been adequate measures of reconciliation to overcome the persistent legacies of the history of oppression, and that there is still much healing that needs to be done.” He does not address in detail existing federal social and educational policies and programs already serving indigenous people or the phenomenon of casino gambling that has brought considerable wealth to some communities.

In his final report, Anaya will have to balance the demands he heard for greater indigenous sovereignty over lands and institutions against the equally insistent calls for more American government programs in the same communities. It will be an interesting outcome.

Additional resources

Quietly, New US Policies Align With the UN

In Washington, the Human Rights Council Endures Scrutiny

Tibetan Buddhists Mistreated by Chinese, Rights Experts Say


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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