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Sioux protests and the protection of human rights in the United States

Tribal leaders’ protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota have been showing how both environmental and human rights are so difficult to defend in the US. Español

Man locks himself to construction equipment to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Photo: Desiree Kane/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Through the relentless stream of rush-hour pedestrian gridlock, it was difficult to distinguish between protestor, spectator, tourist and commuter on a recent Tuesday in Grand Central Train Station in New York City. However, within minutes, any ambiguity between demonstrator and observer quickly thawed with the clarion call of “Mic check!” by the apparent organiser of the demonstration. Hand-in-hand, the group of 30 responded with a resounding “Mic check!” and the 3rd consecutive day of the New York City solidarity protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota(DAPL) had begun.

While the DAPL demonstrations in New York and across the United States have attracted the attention of other allied groups, national media, police and government officials, the locus of the movement, and the site of the polices’ most violent crackdown, is thousands of miles away on the rural plains of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation in North Dakota. The frequency and intensity of the protests, and attendant violent crackdown, are a stark reminder of the US Government’s fundamental failure to develop a nation-wide independent human rights body to provide impartial and timely support for communities subject to human rights violations.

The diversity of civic resistance strategies used by the Sioux community as well as their longstanding commitment to the cause belies the recent surge in reporting of the protests. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have opposed construction of the pipeline, which would daily transfer hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to central Illinois, since its inception in 2014. The Sioux, a tribe of over 10,000 with land stretching across North and South Dakota, claim that the pipeline would have catastrophic environmental and cultural consequences for the community including polluting local water sources and razing sacred lands and burial grounds.

In recent months, as construction of the pipeline advanced, leaders of the movement supplemented stalled litigation in federal courts with a range of non-violent protest strategies. Over 200 Native American tribes and thousands of non-native supporters have joined the protests on both a sustained and temporary basis at rallies and primary encampments. However, in an apparent attempt to suppress the movement’s growing momentum and discourage others from joining in solidarity, the authorities have assumed an increasingly hostile and coercive stance to the protests.

Increasingly since September, security firms employed by Energy Access Partners, the private company developing the pipeline, and local and state police agencies have routinely utilized excessive force, arbitrary arrest and intimidation tactics to subvert the protesters constitutional and international rights to expression and peaceful assembly.  Over the course of the last month more than 400 protesters have been arrested, many of whom have been subjected to highly-questionable charges including engaging in riots and conspiracy to endanger by fire and explosion. On several occasions, police have resorted to wanton violence to disperse and silence the demonstrations. With worrying frequency, the police have targeted protestors using rubber bullets, pepper spray and attack dogs.

Attempts by local officials to justify this unwarranted and excessive use of force as a legitimate response to a belligerent environment induced by the protestors is as misleading as it is inaccurate. The protestors have remained largely peaceful, engaging in non-violent forms of public dissent, including sit-ins, marches and occupations. Moreover, the authorities have taken systematic and wildly undemocratic measures to silence independent reporting on the protests.

In mid-September, investigative journalists with “Democracy Now!,” a daily television news program, arrived in Standing Rock to document the protests. They captured footage of private security guards brutally attacking demonstrators which attracted over 13 million views on Facebook and was later syndicated on most major television news networks. Days later, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation issued an arrest warrant for Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, on  charges of engaging in a riot. While the case was later thrown out by a North Dakota judge, the targeted persecution of independent journalists for reporting on police misconduct represents an alarming and calculated escalation of the authorities’ campaign to suppress the legitimate DAPL protest movement.

In the current political climate where rural and suburban job growth has assumed rhetorical primacy, the prospect of a settlement which reflects the environmental, economic and cultural needs of the Sioux Standing Rock community, seems increasingly remote. Last week, despite previously signalling that the Federal Government would consider an alternative route for the pipeline, President Obama indicated that construction would soon resume - though, later and probably reacting to the presence of hundreds of veterans at Standing Rock, the Army denied a key permit for the continuation of the construction of the pipeline. But President-elect Trump, who denies the existence of climate change and proposed expanding fossil fuel energy infrastructure projects in first 100 days, is unlikely to take a more accommodating approach than his predecessor.

The lack of Executive leadership on this issue, coupled with the excessive discretion of local and private security forces to use indiscriminate force against peaceful protesters with impunity raises important questions about the US Government’s failure to develop an effective and national strategy to monitor and document human rights abuses by the State and private businesses.

From North Dakota to Flint, Michigan, to Grand Central Terminal, individuals, families and communities adversely effected by economic and environmental inequality are being forced to take to the streets to have their voices heard. If the US is committed to addressing these grievances, it must develop a cohesive and inter-state policy to monitor and report on all forms of human rights violations.

Specifically, the United States must get serious about matching its constitutional commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by establishing a national institution that allows the realisation of rights without having to resort to costly and lengthy legal processes. An independent National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) with the mandate to swiftly receive and investigate human rights complaints would go a long way in addressing everyday complaints of government overreach. The US remains an extreme outlier among the nearly 150 countries across the world which have taken important steps to establish and support the development of NHRIs. The creation of an impartial national body human rights with local offices to track and respond to claims of human rights abuses would act a crucial bulwark against attempts to silence dissenting voices and facilitate prompt access to effective remedies. 

About the author

Tor Hodenfield is a Policy and Advocacy Officer at CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation where he specializes in advocacy at the UN Human Rights Council. Prior to joining CIVICUS, Tor was an advisor for a human rights monitoring group in the Horn of Africa.


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