Boston, MA--As the U.S. State Department prepares its compliance report for the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Oxfam America is recommending that the report address human rights violations against Native Americans cited in a March, 2006 CERD decision.
"Just as the US government urges governments around the world to protect the human rights of its citizens, the US needs to set the highest example in our own country. The rights of the Western Shoshone to their land, their livelihoods, and their culture, should not be compromised," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.
The UN decision, in response to an Urgent Action Request filed by the Western Shoshone peoples, found that the Western Shoshone "are being denied their traditional rights to land" and that the U.S. government has failed in its "obligation to guarantee the right of everyone to equality before the law in enjoyment of civil, political, economic and cultural rights, without discrimination based on race, color, or national or ethnic origin."
The Western Shoshone assert that their claim to their ancestral lands is protected by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, while the U.S. government calls their territory "federal land." CERD found that the mechanism used by the federal government to attempt to extinguish the Western Shoshone land title "did not comply with contemporary international human rights norms, principles and standards that govern determination of indigenous property interests."
In 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made a similar finding, calling the process an "illegitimate" means of claiming land title.
"We are pleased that CERD and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have recognized our rights to our traditional lands," said Carrie Dann, a Western Shoshone grandmother and leader on the land rights issue.
"The U.S. has been attempting to deny us for the last 30 years our rights to do what we are here to do--to protect our environment and protect the most precious and sacred things--the land and water and the right to breathe clean air. What we want now, and what we have always wanted, is an opportunity to negotiate in good faith an agreement to resolve these issues," added Dann.
As a result of this dispute, the U.S. government has attempted to charge the Western Shoshone with millions of dollars in grazing fees, and, when the fees go unpaid, has confiscated hundreds of horses and cattle, depriving ranchers of their livelihoods. Classification of Western Shoshone territory as federal lands has also allowed the introduction of dozens of large-scale gold mines that make Nevada the second largest gold-producing area in the world and threaten precious water supplies in an arid environment.
CERD's decision called for the federal government to cease and desist from such acts of intimidation and harassment and to "take immediate action to initiate a dialogue with the Western Shoshone peoples in order to find a solution acceptable to them, and which complies with their rights..."
The U.S. government has failed to respond to the CERD decision and also to a set of questions posed by CERD in August, 2005. According to the Oxfam statement, "the U.S. government's lack of response to a situation that CERD considers urgent...has only served to exacerbate a protracted problem and reflects poorly on our government and on our country’s history of treatment of indigenous peoples."