Published: Oct. 26, 2015

Students and faculty in Colorado Law’s American Indian Law Program are lending their work to advance human rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.

On September 22-23, 2015, professors Kristen Carpenter and Carla Fredericks, along with American Indian Law Clinic alumni Christina Warner (’15) and Kate Finn (’16), attended the 30th regular session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland. They also held an event at the Human Rights Council, entitled, “Indigenous Operationalization and Implementation of UNDRIP’s Free, Prior, and Informed Consent,” where they presented case studies and the Clinic’s work to bring provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into tribal law as models for indigenous groups throughout the world. 

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, UNDRIP establishes a standard for the treatment of indigenous peoples by proclaiming their individual and collective rights, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, health, and other issues.

The Geneva visit came about as part of the support faculty and students in the American Indian Law Clinic provide to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNSR). When Tauli-Corpuz learned about the American Indian Law Clinic’s work with a tribe in the U.S. to bring international human rights norms into tribal law, she asked the Clinic to present their work at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) meeting in Geneva.

Working with Tauli-Corpuz and global human rights groups allows students to see the effects of their work with American Indians on a larger scale, even impacting the international indigenous community.

 “The UNSR is a key voice for indigenous peoples throughout the world, so there is a lot of pressure on her to speak for so many people,” Fredericks said. “We support Tauli-Corpuz’s capacity so that her work can have greater breadth and depth.”

For Fredericks, being in Geneva “was a watershed moment for our program. . .it is appropriate, because we are doing so much work in the human rights area. It was more impactful than I ever could have imagined.”

Both professors are leading scholars in indigenous international law. Fredericks, director of the American Indian Law Clinic and American Indian Law Program, has participated in New York at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for the last five years. Carpenter, associate dean for research and professor of law, teaches Indigenous Peoples in International Law. She was recently selected by Colorado Law Dean Phil Weiser to present on her research on indigenous peoples’ human rights at the school’s 41st Annual Austin W. Scott, Jr. Lecture on October 8, 2015.

As international law further embraces human rights, we have seen the rights of indigenous peoples slowly gain more attention, Carpenter said. Asserting a voice in international legal forums is a key objective of the international indigenous peoples’ movement, and, as a result of their advocacy efforts, indigenous peoples have shaped the processes and substance of human rights law itself. In her view, this includes the General Assembly’s adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007.

“As indigenous peoples implement the UNDRIP through international, domestic, and tribal advocacy, they are bringing their own customs and norms to bear on human rights both in concept and practice,” Carpenter said. 

Fredericks, in turn, hopes to continue to offer opportunities for students to participate in U.N. advocacy. “There is a real opportunity for this to become a regular capstone experience for students,” she said. “The only hurdle is getting students to Geneva.” The American Indian Law Program is funded through donor dollars.

Fredericks continued, “It’s quite powerful to be in that environment and witness the indigenous voice playing a key role in world-wide diplomatic and development agendas.” For Carpenter, it was “illuminating for my students in the Indigenous Peoples in International Law class to see indigenous advocates from around the world participate in negotiations with states, and then, in turn, for us to share our academic research and projects with leaders in the indigenous movement.”

Learn more about the American Indian Law Program and the American Indian Law Clinic at Colorado Law.