Fulfilling Human Rights Obligations to Indigenous Women and Indigenous Peoples During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Even before the World Health Organization’s March 11, 2020 declaration of a global pandemic, the United Nations (UN) and Organization of American States (OAS) began curtailing international human rights meetings as the coronavirus spread throughout the world. Many meetings that usually serve as critical opportunities for indigenous peoples and indigenous women to raise rights violations were suspended or postponed, including but not limited to the 43rd and 44th Sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, the 64th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the 19th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the 13th Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
At the same time, both the UN and OAS recognized that indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the global pandemic. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs issued a statement recognizing that indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women and girls, often are disproportionately affected by epidemics and that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “establishes the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and wellbeing of indigenous peoples.”
The statement reports that “There are more than 476 million indigenous peoples in the world, found in all regions of the world, from the Arctic to the tropical forests. Indigenous peoples are more than 6 per cent of the global population. Indigenous peoples, in particular indigenous women and girls are often disproportionately affected by epidemics and other crises. Indigenous peoples are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty as their non-indigenous counterparts. They account for almost 19 percent of the extreme poor, irrespective of the region and residence in rural or urban areas and even across international borders. They are custodians of a wealth of traditional knowledge and practices, languages and culture, which includes time tested responses to crises. In addition to poverty and underlying health status, many indigenous peoples live in isolated or remote communities, where health-care services are difficult to reach and have limited capacity, or do not exist. The role of elders in indigenous communities is particularly significant as they play a key role in keeping and transmitting indigenous traditional knowledge and culture and practices that can contribute to the health, well-being and recovery of their own and wider communities.” [Footnotes omitted]
The statement also provides a list of considerations for governments in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic including ensuring “indigenous women are effectively engaged in decision making related to COVID-19 and in dealing with the socio-economic effects of lockdowns, physical distancing and other mitigation efforts, recognizing that indigenous women and girls will be disproportionately affected by these efforts;” ensuring that disaggregated data of indigenous peoples is available including rates of infection, mortality, and incidence of violence; and respecting indigenous peoples rights to self-determination.1
The UN has developed a webpage of COVID-19 resources for indigenous peoples, which is available at bit.ly/3obQx9i.
Indigenous Rights Resource
Practical Guide to Inclusive Rights-Focused
Responsesto COVID-19 in the Americas,
available in English and Spanish
View guide: bit.ly/3o4YsoC
The OAS has issued a “Practical Guide to Inclusive Rights- Focused Responses to COVID-19 in the Americas,” which is now available in English, as well as Spanish. The guide supports member states in responding to the global pandemic and offers tools to use in responding to the circumstances of vulnerable groups. Chapter 1 of the guide specifically speaks to “Women, Gender Equality, and COVID.” OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro cautioned that the ability to survive the pandemic is less likely for those in situations of poverty and extreme poverty and for groups historically discriminated against, including indigenous peoples and women. Accordingly, the guide states “that the member states must place emphasis on guaranteeing the right to health of these groups, using objective and reasonable criteria of distinction, based on the equalization of opportunities to bridge the inequality gap, and avoid arbitrary differences in treatment.”2
The guide also acknowledges the pervasiveness of violence against women and how the virus impacts the safety and security of women. “According to the United Nations, 87,000 women were intentionally killed worldwide in 2017, and of that number, more than 50,000 were murdered by their partners, former partners, or a member of their family. The WHO notes that 30% of women in the Americas have suffered physical or sexual violence from their partner, and that 38% of women are killed by their partner or a former partner. Prolonged coexistence exacerbates situations of violence, especially in combination with stress and fear of loss of income or adverse economic situations, and the home can become the most insecure place when women and children are in confinement along with their attackers.”3
Human Rights Advocacy Moving Forward Virtually
13th Session of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP)
The EMRIP 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.
As a result of the pandemic, the UN postponed the 13th Session of the EMRIP until November 30 to December 4, 2020. However, in order to ensure that EMRIP’s reports and suggestions were available for the Human Rights Council 45th Session in September 2020, the Expert Mechanism called on stakeholders including indigenous peoples to comment on proposals for the Council. In response the Indian Law Resource Center, Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, and National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center submitted comments to EMRIP concerning violence against indigenous women in the United States, particularly Alaska Native women, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UN recognizes that indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the global pandemic, and that violence against women is growing as a shadow pandemic. It has noted that measures like curfews, quarantines, and travel restrictions and checkpoints being used to limit outbreaks of the virus also restrict survivors of abuse from getting help, reaching shelters, and distancing themselves from abusers. In the case of indigenous women in the United States, we emphasized to EMRIP that the COVID-19 pandemic also has magnified pervasive human rights abuses, shining a floodlight on dangerous gaps in U.S. law and significant disparities already facing indigenous peoples. We further noted that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples must be implemented by states and the UN to address this violence.
Based on the foregoing and the COVID-19 pandemic, we urged that the Human Rights Council:
- Regularly address the elimination of all forms of violence against indigenous women and girls during its annual discussions on women’s human rights and on indigenous peoples;
- Direct the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to pay particular attention to the rights and special needs of indigenous women and children in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and monitor states’ measures to ensure they enjoy protection against all forms of violence and discrimination;
- Enhance the ability of relevant special procedures to respond to this issue and address the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination experienced by indigenous women in the context of COVID-19 by requesting special, and perhaps joint, reports on the topic; and
- Request that the UN Secretary-General:
a. Issue a report on violence against indigenous women in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with recommendations for future actions, and
b. Convene a high-level panel in 2021 on intensifying efforts, in collaboration with indigenous peoples, to prevent and eliminate violence and discrimination against indigenous women in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We were pleased that the Expert Mechanism did suggest that the Human Rights Council hold a panel discussion in 2021 (48th Session) on the human rights of indigenous peoples during the pandemic.
Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
In response to a request by Francisco Cali-Tzay, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, the Indian Law Resource Center, Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, and National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center submitted written information to inform his report on the impact of COVID-19 on the rights of indigenous peoples. Our statement, “Violence Against Indigenous Women in the United States, Particularly Alaska Native Women, in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” describes how indigenous women, including those in the United States, often are battered, raped, murdered, and disappearing at extraordinary rates because of their gender and because they are indigenous.
In Alaska, the situation is particularly dire. Our statement again discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified pre-existing human rights abuses, dangerous gaps in U.S. law, and the significant disparities faced by indigenous peoples before COVID-19. These include, but are not limited to disparities in the availability of critical resources and services such as law enforcement, safe housing, indigenous women’s shelters, health care, victim services, internet, cellular, and equitable federal funding. Our full statement, as well as those by other indigenous nations and organizations throughout the world, including the National Congress of American Indians and Navajo Nation, are available at bit.ly/2TnSbGF. The Special Rapporteur’s report, A/75/185, will be presented to the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly on October 12, 2020.4
45th Session of the Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body within the UN system that promotes and protects human rights worldwide, held its 45th Session in Geneva on September 14 - October 2, 2020, which included the annual half-day panel on the rights of indigenous peoples and an interactive dialogue with the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Indian Law Resource Center submitted a written statement (A/HRC/45/NGO/23) concerning violence against indigenous women in the United States, particularly Alaska Native women, in the context of COVID-19. The statement highlighted the extreme levels of violence and murder against indigenous women in the United States, with Alaska Native women experiencing the highest rate of forcible sexual assault in our country. The statement explained that the “Covid-19 pandemic has magnified historic, pervasive human rights abuses such as the extreme levels of violence experienced by American Indian and Alaska Native women and the crisis of and missing and murdered indigenous women, shining a floodlight on dangerous gaps in U.S. law and significant disparities facing indigenous peoples related to the United States’ failure to adequately address their wellbeing for more than 200 years.” In other words, “the pandemic is making an already bad situation even worse.”
The statement further noted the coronavirus is also impacting the safety of indigenous women in the United States by preventing lawmakers from giving attention to critically-needed, life-saving legislation such as the overdue reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, bills to address the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, ensuring more equitable funding to Indian tribes to provide crime victim services, and improving the access of indigenous governments to the United States federal criminal information databases.
The Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center and National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center supported the statement, which also reiterates our proposed actions for the Human Rights Council, previously submitted to EMRIP, that would focus attention on efforts to end violence against indigenous women, pay particular attention to the rights and needs of indigenous women and children during the pandemic, and help provide lasting improvements in the lives of indigenous peoples.5
Significantly, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution A/HRC/45/L.34 deciding that “the theme of the annual halfday panel discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples, to be held during the forty-eighth session of the Human Rights Council, will be the situation of human rights of indigenous peoples facing the COVID-19 pandemic and have a special focus on the right to participation, and requests the Office of the High Commissioner to encourage and facilitate the participation of indigenous women and to make the discussion fully accessible to persons with disabilities, and to prepare a summary report on the discussion and to submit it to the Council prior to its fiftieth session.”6 The designation of a theme related to the pandemic’s impact on indigenous peoples for the September 2021 session of the Council, coupled with an explicit request for participation by indigenous women, provides an important opportunity for future advocacy.
Upcoming Advocacy Opportunities
65th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW65)
The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the UN’s principal intergovernmental body that focuses exclusively on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women globally. CSW65 is scheduled to take place on March 15-26, 2021 in New York. The priority theme of the 65th session is women’s “full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” The session’s review theme is women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development. The outcome of the session will be agreed conclusions and recommendations relevant to these themes.
A critical element of the CSW work is the active participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO CSW65 Forum and its parallel events planned by NGOs and member states will be virtual. For additional information, visit the CSW65 webpage at bit.ly/37snCaL
More information about the 65th Commission on the Status of Women can be found online at bit.ly/34hAvml.