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 American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of South Dakota are joining dozens of other U.S. civil society organizations this week in Geneva, Switzerland, in petitioning the U.N. to hold the U.S. government accountable for policies and practices that violate the treaty.
The ACLU, with the Lakota People’s Law Project, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, is urging the U.N. 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.
“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,” Amiotte said. “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.”
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.
“We have inalienable inherent rights to clean water and to the access, the control and allodial title, title in our own national right in our sacred sites, in our sacred lands,” said Chase Iron Eyes, co-director and lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project. “It was Chief Fools Crow who said if we were only to put land back in Indigenous hands, the world could begin to heal.”
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 civil society organizations submitted reports to the committee last month ahead of the review, including on topics such as colonialism in U.S. territories, criminal law reform, separation of families at the border and under the child welfare system, the desecration of sacred Indigenous sites, and the need to establish a National Human Rights Institution in the United States. Other civil society organizations filed additional submissions to the committee.
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 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,” Amiotte said. “Our 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. For more information, visit the UNHCR website.
A copy of the ACLU’s report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee is below.
There will be a press conference at 10 a.m. CT / 5 p.m. Geneva time today with Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Human Rights Program, and representatives from the other U.S. civil society organizations. Join here: https://aclu.zoom.us/j/87226543781.
About the ACLU of South Dakota
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. The ACLU of South Dakota is part of a three-state chapter that also includes North Dakota and Wyoming. The team in South Dakota is supported by staff in those states.
The ACLU believes freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and religion, and the rights to due process, equal protection and privacy, are fundamental to a free people. In addition, the ACLU seeks to advance constitutional protections for groups traditionally denied their rights, including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit communities. The ACLU of South Dakota carries out its work through selective litigation, lobbying at the state and local level, and through public education and awareness of what the Bill of Rights means for the people of South Dakota.