Volume 1, Issue 9 (Originally Published on 30 April 2012)
In April and May, the UN will conduct a human rights investigation into the plight of US Native Americans, the first such mission in its history. It will be led by James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, who assumed office in 2008.
Many of the country's estimated 2.7 million Native Americans live in tribal areas plagued with unemployment, alcoholism, high suicide rates, incest and other social problems.
In addition, Native Americans are involved in near-continuous disputes over sovereignty and land rights. In fact, more than 70 tribes still remain in litigation with the US government. A promising development occurred this month, when US authorities pledged to pay 41 American Indian tribes a little over one billion dollars to resolve decades-old lawsuits. The settlement does not redress the historical wrongs done to Native Americans, their displacement and massacres, and the elimination of entire Indian cultures. The limitation is that it only involves concrete legal claims that President Obama promised to resolve at the start of his presidency three years ago.
The US signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010, three years after its adoption by the General Assembly. However, the Special Rapporteur’s mission is potentially contentious, with some US conservatives likely to object to international interference in domestic matters.
After his visit to Australia in 2009, the Special Rapporteur commended the federal government for ‘taking significant steps to improve the human rights and socio-economic conditions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, as well as for its recent expression of support for United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and for its apology to the victims of the Stolen Generation’. He noted with approval a number of successful indigenous programmes addressing issues of alcoholism, domestic violence, health and education in ways that are ‘culturally appropriate and adapted to local needs’.
However, Professor Anaya also expressed concern over the Northern Territory Emergency Response, alleging that this special measure, infringing as it did on the basic rights of indigenous peoples, was not tailored, proportional, or necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives being pursued.
Other jurisdictions and peoples about whom Professor Anaya has made official reports include the Sami people of Norway, Sweden and Finland; the indigenous peoples of Brazil; the Kanak people of New Caledonia (French Republic); and the indigenous peoples of Botswana.
Although Special Rapporteurs do not receive any financial compensation for their work, they are entitled to personnel and logistical support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This enables them to conduct fact-finding missions to countries whose governments agree to their visits.
There are currently 28 United Nations Special Rapporteurs. Their mandates include Education; the Right to Food; Torture and Freedom of Opinion and Expression