International Advocacy Update: Raising Global Awareness of Violence Against Indigenous Women in the Context of Climate Change
In addition to advocacy at Tribal, state, and federal levels, international human rights law can provide Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women with significant opportunities to raise global awareness about the crisis of violence against Indigenous women in the United States. “Besides creating new advocacy spaces to strengthen grassroots efforts to restore safety to Indigenous women and to gain strong federal responses, participation in international advocacy helps Indigenous women and organizations in the United States from allies around the world,” says Jana Walker, a senior attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center. “These allies can include other Indigenous women, peoples, and organizations as well as human rights bodies and experts that can be helpful in pressuring the United States to meet its human rights obligations to Indigenous women and peoples.”
Advocacy During the UN Commission On the Status of Women (CSW)
The CSW is the UN’s principal intergovernmental body that focuses exclusively on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women worldwide. The CSW met in New York for its 66th session from March 14-25, 2022, with the priority theme of “achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies, and programmes.”
This year, in order to share information with the CSW, to form partnerships with new Indigenous allies, and to raise awareness throughout the world about the impact of climate change on Indigenous women, the Indian Law Resource Center organized a virtual parallel event on March 22, 2022, Climate Change and Indigenous Women's Rights: Brazil; Guatemala; United States.
Our partners for this event were Indigenous- or Indigenous women-led organizations including the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center (AKNWRC), National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains (NWSGP), the Pouhana ‘O Nā Wahine (PONW), the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB)—a leading Indigenous rights organization representing 160 different Indigenous peoples within the Brazilian Amazon—and the International Mayan League (IML), an NGO that works with Mayan communities in Central America and the United States.
Our event featured a panel of Indigenous women from our partner organizations discussing how climate change may increase and fuel violations of Indigenous women’s rights, including violence against Indigenous women, and the strategies they are pursuing to restore safety in their communities through policy reform.
Summary of Parallel Event Panel Discussion On Climate Crisis, Including Environmental Degradation, and Related Displacement and Violence Against Indigenous Women
The UN Human Rights Council recognizes that “environmental degradation, climate change, and unsustainable development constitute . . . pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy human rights, including the right to life,” and the human rights implications “are felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations, including Indigenous peoples and women and girls.” A/HRC/RES/48/13 (2021), at 2.
The UN further recognizes that Indigenous women often suffer multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination and higher rates of violence than other women. They are battered, raped, trafficked, murdered, and disappear at extraordinary rates because of their gender and because they are Indigenous. A/HRC/RES/26/15 (2014), at 2. The UN also has found climate change to be an aggravator of gender-based violence against women and girls as highlighted in a 2019 study by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. A/HRC/41/26.
Moreover, in 2021 for the first time, the UN Human Rights Council recognized that the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is “important for the enjoyment of human rights.” A/HRC/RES/48/13 (2021), at 3.
Two international instruments are of particular importance to Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women. “Both the UN and American Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are significant affirmations of the rights of Indigenous women to enjoy protection against all forms of violence and discrimination,” notes Christopher Foley, a senior attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center. “And, both Declarations also recognize that Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment.” The UN Declaration also recognizes that Indigenous peoples have the right to be secure in their own means of subsistence and both Declarations recognize a right to restitution or, in the case of the American Declaration, just and fair redress where they are deprived of this subsistence right. In addition, the American Declaration explicitly recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to a healthy, safe, and sustainable environment.
Specific Examples of Impacts on Indigenous Women and Communities In the Context of Climate Change
In the United States, climate change and environmental degradation impact Indigenous communities in ways that strike at the very core of who Indigenous peoples are and how they live. In many Indigenous communities, such as those in rural Alaska where food security depends heavily on subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering on land and water, global warming is already negatively impacting vital resources and the environment. Debra O’Gara (Tlingit/Yup’ik Wrangell/Mountain Village), Senior Policy Specialist, AKNWRC, offers a vivid firsthand description of how climate change is depleting subsistence resources in Alaska:
“I have a memory of standing on the banks of the Yukon River watching skiffs come in to unload fish at the cannery. One of several boats was moving very slowly because it was so loaded with King salmon that only one inch of the boat cleared the water. That was only 50 years ago, less than a lifetime. Today there are no Kings returning.”
“Violence, detention, and language discrimination are practically universal threats that Indigenous women migrants face, and climate change migrants will be no exception.” — Juanita Cabrera Lopez, Executive Director, International Mayan League
Destruction of the environment by extractive industries, including through the siting of pipelines and the encroachment of their non-Indigenous workers into Indigenous territories, elevates the risk and occurrence of violence, sexual assault, death, and trafficking and increases fear in Indigenous women and communities. In the United States, extractive industries within Indigenous territories and lands also carry a high risk of causing negative health consequences through contamination of the air, water, land, and even fish and wildlife. For example, an oil pipeline break, particularly one that runs under a river, could pollute the only water supplies for multiple Indigenous Nations in the United States. These Tribal homelands and their natural resources—especially water—are irreplaceable.
The Maya Ch’orti Indigenous peoples, located in what is known as the Dry Corridor in Guatemala, are dealing with climate change impacts. Extractive industries, such as hydroelectric plants, mining companies, illegal logging, and farmers, have encroached on their territories and are taking resources including water, minerals, and timber. Maya Ch’orti women face violence for defending their lands, and a number of them have been criminalized and assassinated due to their activism against such projects.
In Brazil, the human population and the environment meet in the Amazon forest—forests that are critical for Indigenous peoples as well as all of humanity. Indigenous territories are experiencing invasions of extractive industries engaged in mining, cattle ranching, and logging. When Indigenous peoples act to defend their rights and their lands the homes of Indigenous leaders are burnt down; Indigenous women are raped; Indigenous lives are threatened.
The destruction and theft of Indigenous peoples’ natural resources can lead to economic poverty for Indigenous women and communities, and the loss of the community’s ability to engage in their cultural practices or even to live on their traditional homelands. Climate change-related disruptions exacerbate these economic pressures and lead to increased homelessness and migration of Indigenous women as they leave their territories to seek economic security. As Juanita Cabrera Lopez, the Executive Director of the International Mayan League noted, “Indigenous peoples’ migration . . . is characterized by unique vulnerabilities . . . stem[ing]from our Indigenous identity and the intersection of discrimination, racism, and language, and this is clearly seen in the arbitrary detention of Juana Alonzo Santizo of the Maya Chuj Nation for seven years in Reynoso, Tamaulipas, Mexico.” Her detention followed discrimination, torture, and interrogation by police in Spanish, a language Juana did not speak then. See Opinion 35/3021 of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (A/HRC/WGAD/2021/35) “Violence, detention, and language discrimination are practically universal threats that Indigenous women migrants face, and climate change migrants will be no exception,” notes Lopez.
Climate change can result in displacement of Indigenous communities living on shorelines or islands, for example in Alaska and Hawai’i, and loss of their housing and other infrastructure due to erosion of shorelines and submersions due to storm surges and increased sea level. Climate change and environmental degradation also increase the overall stresses in Indigenous communities and households through the loss of normal seasonal activities and gatherings tied to cultural identity.
Native Hawaiian women are dealing with climate changes projected to affect coastal and marine ecosystems as well as environmental degradation due to unsustainable tourism, scientific research, and military activities, all of which add to shortages in natural food sources such as fish and seaweed, loss of coral resources, and impacts on being able to practice their cultural beliefs at sacred spaces such as Mauna Kea.
In conclusion, all of these climate change-related impacts fuel increased violence against Indigenous women, which is already at unprecedented levels on Tribal and Alaska Native lands and also within other Indigenous communities. Protecting Indigenous women’s rights, securing Indigenous land rights, and achieving climate justice are interconnected, and the voices and participation of Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples at all levels throughout the world are essential and critical to achieving all these.
Joint Statement to Ms. Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
As an outcome of our parallel event at CSW66, the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center (AKNWRC), Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), International Mayan League (IML), National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains (NWSGP), and Pouhana ʻO Nā Wahine (PONW) offered a Joint Statement on Climate Change and Indigenous Women’s Rights: Brazil, Guatemala, and the United States as input to inform the UN Special Rapporteur’s Report to the 77th session of the General Assembly on violence against women, in the context of the climate crisis, including environmental degradation and related disaster risk mitigation response. The 77th session of the General Assembly will take place on September 13-20, 2022 in New York.
C A L E N D A R
UPCOMING INTERNATIONAL EVENTS
April 25-May 6, 2022
21st Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
Established by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is a high-level advisory body that deals solely with indigenous issues. The Forum is composed of 16 independent expert members serving three-year terms, half of whom are nominated by states and half of whom are nominated by Indigenous organizations in their regions. The Permanent Forum is mandated to discuss economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. This year’s session will address the theme “Indigenous peoples, business, autonomy and the human rights principles of due diligence including free, prior and informed consent.” Official documents and other information about the session are available online: n8ve.net/fjtoI
July 4-July 8, 2022
Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides expertise and advice to the Human Rights Council on the rights of indigenous peoples. It also helps member states with their implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Annually, the Expert Mechanism holds a five-day session where representatives from Indigenous peoples, Indigenous peoples organizations, civil society, states, and academia can participate. The 15th session of the EMRIP will take place at UN Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. More information will be provided soon online: n8ve.net/oaUsk
June 13-July 8, 2022 / Sept. 12-Oct. 7, 2022
50th and 51st Sessions of the UN Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. The 50th session will take place June 13-July 8 and typically includes the Council’s annual full-day discussion on the rights of women. The 51st session will be held on September 12-October 7, 2022 and typically includes a half-day discussion on indigenous peoples’ rights. When available, further information about these sessions will be posted online: n8ve.net/uVTk6