Published: May 1, 2020

This pandemic threatens the physical, cultural and spiritual survival of our peoples as well as our economic viability as Indigenous Nations and Native communities. The historic and ongoing human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples have created conditions that predispose us to the worst impacts of this global pandemic.
Indigenous Peoples Statement from the April 15 USHRN Briefing to UN Missions

UN/Indigenous PeoplesThe Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States, set to take place on November 9, 2020, gives civil society the opportunity to evaluate the U.S.’s human rights record of the last five years and recommend solutions and strategies to improve where needed.

Responding to ramifications of the global COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN) has identified several areas of immediate and urgent concern as to human rights in the U.S. This includes healthcare, sanitation and water, prisons and immigration detention, safeguarding democracy (especially voting rights and the protection of human rights defenders), women’s rights, and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

To the latter, First Peoples Worldwide is working with USHRN and its partners to assess how the U.S. can better protect and preserve the human rights of the more than five million American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian peoples who reside in its borders, as well as Indigenous Peoples around the world who may be impacted by U.S. international policies and business development. 

In advance of the 2020 review, First Peoples prepared and submitted Observations on the State of Indigenous Human Rights in the United States of America, in collaboration with the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Cultural Survival, Land is Life, and the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado.

The report, which details ongoing and potential human rights violations if the U.S. continues to fast-track fossil fuel projects in the Arctic Refuge, states:

The government of the United States has repeatedly failed to protect the human rights of the Gwich’in by aggressively pursuing oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without first obtaining the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the Gwich’in Nation.

This is consistent with “a history of violating the rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly in the context of energy and resource development projects.” Oil and gas lease sales in the Coastal Plain are “in direct violation of the human rights of the Gwich’in Nation and in violation of the ICERD, ICCPR, and repugnant to the principles expressed in the UDHR, UNDRIP, and other human rights instruments.”

Outlining integral facets of the Gwich’in way of life, the report calls for the U.S. to protect the Gwich’in’s rights to subsistence, food security and nutrition, health and mental wellness, a clean environment, and free, prior and informed consent, as well as to protect against religious and cultural harms.

Many Indigenous Peoples face similar human rights violations, and where the U.S. has failed to consider and protect Native people’s rights and welfare, enduring recourse occurs. Recent examples include Tribes defending their lands and resources against the Dakota Access, KXL and Enbridge pipelines; protests around Mauna Kea; the disestablishment of the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation; the misdistribution of federal COVID-19 relief money; and forced migration of Indigenous communities due to climate change and the historic lack of environmental protections.

The Gwich’in report is one of over 139 stakeholder submissions delivered in advance of the U.S. UPR. Several of these highlight other ways that Indigenous Peoples are being negatively impacted by U.S. governance and policy, such as: 

• lack of land rights and protection of natural resources due to “increasing federal disregard for indigenous sovereignty in favour of business and competitive interests”
• the effect of repealed water pollution regulations on Indigenous lands
• no protection of sacred places from business developments
• disproportionately high levels of rape, sexual violence and murder among Indigenous women
• difficulty prosecuting serious crimes on Tribal lands under “a mishmash of federal, state and Tribal jurisdictions”
• forced displacement of people
• high poverty and unemployment rates, which undermine an adequate standard of living
• inability to access affordable housing, compounded by federal budget cuts
• rising suicide rates 
• disproportionate maternal mortality rates 
• the “expensive and daunting” process to apply for tribal acknowledgement
• discriminatory language from the Executive office

That the U.S. must improve its commitment to ensure and protect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples is made more urgent while “critical protections of Native lands and resources are being trampled” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

After the 2020 UPR of the U.S. was postponed because of the COVID-19 crisis, USHRN organized a Civil Society Briefing to UN Missions for the Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. to address how the pandemic has intensified threats to human rights.

First Peoples, in partnership with Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras, the Mayan League, and the Hawai'i Institute for Human Rights, prepared a written statement encapsulating Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives. Presented by Dr. Octaviana Trujillo Yoeme, the statement [beginning at 43:15 of the recording] prioritized the following:

Right to Water
…Given that hand washing is a key measure for the prevention and spread of COVID-19, we are deeply concerned that Indigenous Peoples and communities who have little access to clean water or sources of water are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19.

Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders
…Already three states have criminalized peaceful protest during the COVID-19 crisis usurping the law and undertaking practices that wouldn’t be allowed against any other segment of society reflecting the perpetual racism and prejudice faced by Indigenous Peoples.

Easing of Environmental Regulations and Fast Tracking of Oil & Gas Development
…Amid unresolved concerns, the government expressed the intention to move forward with the lease sales in the middle of this global pandemic and at a time when oil and gas operations are shutting down due to COVID-19 concerns.

Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Exist and Forced Migration
…we are not being informed by the U.S. Federal or by state Governments about COVID-19 in our primary languages or languages we understand… This in turn generates conditions for the large-scale spread of COVID-19 in our respective communities and workplaces that include construction, agriculture, agroindustry, and cleaning amongst other essential jobs. 

Disestablishment of Reservation Land
…in the midst of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic… The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s citizens are currently suffering a massive loss of resources and services due to the uncertainty of the trust status of the reservation.

The statement concludes that “collective resilience and resistance” are grounded in Indigenous Peoples’ “lifeways, cultures, cosmovision, and with a vision toward the future.”  It provides the following recommendations to the U.S.: 1) consult with Native leaders and communities to understand “key priorities and needs to ensure that they have access to needed resources and support to deal with the health, food, water, and security emergencies that have arisen during this global pandemic”; 2) adhere to minimum standards of Indigenous rights as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and 3) conduct an official investigation into human rights infringements on Indigenous women and children in the U.S. due to COVID-19. 

It is more important than ever to develop immediate plans and implement long-term solutions that will prioritize and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples as we adjust to our new normal and begin to work towards a better one.