Last Wednesday, August 24, Amnesty International USA sent a delegation of human rights observers to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to observe protests, led by Indigenous people against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline that would abut the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and cross the Missouri River, the main source of drinking water for the Tribe and for many communities downstream.
Indigenous rights defenders from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been camped near the pipeline construction site since April of this year on Standing Rock Reservation land. Beginning three weeks ago, protesters created a larger camp across the river from the Reservation, on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. Since then, Indigenous people from across the United States, and some from Canada, have been joining the camp and engaging in protests of the construction site further up the road. According to tribal leaders, this is the largest gathering since the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) in 1876. Reportedly, over 90 tribes have now come together in near Standing Rock.
Amnesty’s decision to send a delegation of human rights observers was based on a number of factors. There have been reports of increasing tension between Indigenous rights protestors and law enforcement, including the arrest of activists related to the construction site. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple authorized a restricted emergency declaration, with the stated intent to provide additional resources to manage public safety risks associated with the protests. A roadblock was established, restricting direct traffic to the protest site (and, consequently, to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation). Those gathered reported low-flying planes over the camp and increased police presence. Authorities removed state-owned relief resources and water tanks from the camps. Citing fear that peaceful assembly could be threatened by state and federal police, tribes issued a call for human rights observers.
All these factors led to AIUSA’s decision to send a human rights observer delegation to monitor the gathering of Indigenous rights defenders and police response to ensure that the government not only respects and protects the rights of those gathered—not violating their rights to peaceful assembly and peaceful protest and ensuring others don’t either—but also fulfills these rights, taking positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. You can read our press releases and letters to the authorities here and here.
In addition to our concerns of the rights of people to peaceful protest, AIUSA’s decision to head to Cannon Ball, ND, was made, too, in the broader context of the human rights of Indigenous people.
The context in which Indigenous communities have gathered to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is rooted in the historical reality of European and U.S. colonization, which forcibly relocated many Indigenous peoples from their land and subjected Indigenous people to a myriad of human rights abuses.
Indigenous peoples’ communities continue to face discrimination and other barriers to their rights and face deeply entrenched marginalization. While multiple international bodies, including the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which monitors states’ compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, has called on states to “recognize and respect indigenous peoples’ distinct culture, history, language and way of life as an enrichment of the State’s cultural identity and to promote its preservation” and ensure that “no decisions directly relating to their rights and interests are taken without their informed consent.” The concerns of Indigenous people in the United States have routinely been sidelined in decisions that directly affect their well-being.
In explaining to me her opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock Sioux, spoke of her current and ancestral home and the long history of attacks against the rights of Indigenous people: “our sacred sites don’t matter, our ways of life don’t matter, our lives don’t matter,” she said. “We have become the disposable people.”
The question of why Indigenous people are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline placement near tribal land and over their water supply is informed and conditioned by this legacy of human rights abuses. It has been compounded by the federal government’s steady erosion of tribal government authority and its chronic under-resourcing of those law enforcement agencies and service providers which should protect Indigenous people’s rights.
It is within this reality that Amnesty International USA’s delegation flew to rural North Dakota and will continue to closely monitor the situation and may return. Indigenous rights are human rights, and the authorities must protect their right to be heard.