UN Human Rights Committee to Review US Compliance with Civil and Political Rights Treaty

How will the United States protect Indigenous sacred sites and traditional ways of life?

How will the United States protect the health of Indigenous Peoples in the Black Hills who worship there and rely on the water and natural resources for drinking and cultural uses?

How will the United States protect Indigenous sacred sites and traditional ways of life?

How will the United States ensure that Indigenous Peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their spiritual relationship with the Black Hills and its natural resources?

These are just a few of the questions the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of South Dakota will be asking the United Nations Human Rights Committee this week in Geneva, Switzerland. 

For the first time in nine years, the United Nations Human Rights Committee will review U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ACLU will join dozens of other U.S. civil society organizations from across the country in petitioning the U.N. to hold the U.S. government accountable for policies and practices that violate the treaty. 

The United States is obligated to abide by the ICCPR, which is one of only three international human rights treaties the country has ratified. Guided by input from participating civil society organizations, committee members will question U.S. federal, state and local government officials. The review will focus on a range of fundamental human rights, including Indigenous rights, voting rights, freedom of expression, sexual and reproductive rights, prisoners’ rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit rights, and children’s rights.

Working alongside the Lakota People’s Law Project, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, the ACLU submitted a report to the U.N. urging the committee to investigate the desecration and exploitation of the Black Hills sacred Indigenous sites. ACLU of South Dakota Legal Director Stephanie Amiotte spoke to the committee about this, detailing the guarantees and promises from the U.S. federal government to the Tribes that have been broken.  

While desecration of sacred Indigenous sites occurs nationwide, one particularly egregious example is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The devastating effects of mining and trespass onto the Black Hills interferes with Indigenous religious ceremonies that take place within several individual sacred sites. 

The First Amendment protects religious equality for all; people of every religion, not just the majority faith, have the right to hold and to exercise their religious beliefs. In the context of Indigenous Peoples and sacred landscapes, there can be no exercise of religious freedom if the foundation for the practice of one’s belief system has been forever decimated. For Indigenous Peoples, whose belief systems and spirituality are intimately tied to the land to which they belong, exercise of religion is intimately tied to the protection of sacred landscapes.

In 2014, the U.N. Human Rights Committee made recommendations on the need for protection of Indigenous sacred sites and regarding obtaining free, prior and informed consent of Tribes prior to implementing actions that adversely affect Native Americans. But even though the United States agreed, it has it has consistently defined its interpretation of “free, prior and informed consent” as “meaningful consultation” with Tribal leaders but not necessarily requiring the Tribe’s agreement for any government action impacting Indigenous communities or Tribes.

The ACLU suggests that the U.N. Committee make the following recommendations:

  • The U.S. should permanently withdraw the Black Hills of South Dakota from all future mining and recognize its status as an Indigenous sacred site.
  • The U.S. should honor the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie which recognized the ownership of the Black Hills by the Sioux Nation Tribes.
  • The U.S. should study and report on the pollution damage to the lands and waterways caused by mineral extractions in the Black Hills.
  • The U.S. should propose mitigation strategies for pollution to the lands and waters caused by mineral extractions in the Black Hills.
  • The U.S. should study and report the impact on the health of Indigenous Peoples caused by mineral extractions in the Black Hills.

The ICCPR review is a unique opportunity to hold the United States accountable before an international forum. The hope is that this review motivates federal and local leaders to make changes that respect and uphold individuals’ civil and political rights.

Following the review, the U.N. will release a formal report with concluding observations and recommendations for U.S. officials.