In the middle of North Dakota, a coalition of environmental activists and Native Americans have been protesting for weeks to stop the construction of a new oil pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The pipeline, they argue, is a threat to the natural environment and also an affront to the rights of the indigenous people living there. The government response to the protest has been intense. And now, says a UN human rights official who’s mandate includes protecting the rights of the freedom of assembly, unjustified and excessive.
The UN Special Rapporteur for Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai issued this statement yesterday. (And, by coincidence, he appeared yesterday on the Global Dispatches podcast to discuss his inspiring life and career battling authoritarian governments)
“Tensions have escalated in the past two weeks, with local security forces employing an increasingly militarized response to protests and forcibly moving encampments located near the construction site,” the rights expert said.
“This is a troubling response to people who are taking action to protect natural resources and ancestral territory in the face of profit-seeking activity,” he noted. “The excessive use of State security apparatus to suppress protest against corporate activities that are alleged to violate human rights is wrong and contrary to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”
“People feel that their concerns are being ignored, and it is their right to stage peaceful assemblies so that these concerns can be heard. The authorities have an obligation to actively protect that right. The rights of cultural heritage defenders have to be respected and protected,” he added.
The Special Rapporteur acknowledged reports that some protests had turned violent, but emphasized that the response had to be strictly proportionate and not affect peaceful protesters.
“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right, and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few,” he said. “The use of violence by some protesters should not be used as a justification to nullify the peaceful assembly rights of everyone else.”
The Special Rapporteur said he was concerned at the scale of arrests and the conditions in which people were being held: “Marking people with numbers and detaining them in overcrowded cages, on the bare concrete floor, without being provided with medical care, amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Kiai was joined by several other “special rapporteurs” who co-signed his statement. These are independent officials who have a mandate from the United Nations, but are not UN employees or staff. Rather, they are experts in their field (in the case of Kiai, he’s a human rights lawyer and activist from Kenya) and empowered by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor abuses and make recommendations in their specific field.
Rapporteurs regularly issue statements like this when they see governments failing to uphold their legal obligations or otherwise abrogate the human rights of people. What is remarkable about this particular statement is that it is joined by so many of these independent experts, and that it sharply criticizes the actions of government forces in the country that first granted its people the rights to peaceable assembly through a constitution ratified in 1788.
Meanwhile, these UN human rights monitors show that there is truth in the slogan embraced by the protestors that “the whole world is watching.”