North Dakota pipeline protestors oppose ‘environmental racism’, Greenpeace had red-flagged Trump’s commercial interest in project
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | November 16, 2016 | Geneva
A UN human rights expert has issued a strong statement accusing the US security forces of using “increasingly militarised response” against North Dakota pipeline protestors, and called it “troubling”.
“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 UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of freedom of association and peaceful assembly, Maini Kiai, 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.”
Some of the 400 people held during the demonstrations had suffered “inhuman and degrading conditions in detention”, the reputed Kenyan human rights lawyer continued.
Protesters who are mostly Native Americans say that they have faced rubber bullets, teargas, mace, compression grenades and bean-bag rounds while expressing concerns over environmental impact and trying to protect burial grounds and other sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
The UN rights expert acknowledged reports that some protests had turned violent but emphasized that the response had to be strictly proportionate and not affect peaceful protesters.
The statement has been supported by a slew of other UN special rapporteurs including the special rapporteur for indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the special rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, the special rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, John Knox, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Léo Heller, and the current chair of the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, Pavel Sulyandziga.
Energy Transfer and the United States’ Army Corps of Engineers are building the 1,890 km pipeline, designed to carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery near Chicago. The company claims that there would be no adverse health impacts from the pipeline and it would not affect cultural sites.
The pipeline was originally supposed to pass north of Bismarck, the North Dakotan capital city mostly inhabited by European Americans, crossing the Missouri River, but the plan was rejected due to environmental concerns and it was rerouted upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation.
Some activists have called this rerouting an act of “environmental racism”.
“This pipeline was rerouted towards our tribal nations when other citizens of North Dakota rightfully rejected it in the interests of protecting their communities and water. We seek the same consideration as those citizens,” Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said in a statement in late October.
Protestors say that the pipeline poses a significant threat to the quality of the drinking water while several of their sacred burial sites have already been bulldozed.
Construction of the pipeline has continued despite a call in September by Tauli-Corpuz and other experts for it to be halted.
Commenting on an announcement on November 8 by pipeline operator Energy Transfer LLC that the final phase of construction would start in two weeks, Kiai said that this “willfully” ignored an earlier public statement by federal agencies and called on the pipeline company “to pause all construction activity within 20 miles east and west of Lake Oahe”.
US president Barack Obama had said in an interview before the November 8 elections that the US Army Corps of Engineers was considering rerouting the four-state Dakota Access Pipeline to accommodate the “sacred lands of Native Americans”.
However, energy experts have predicted that the project would in all probability get the green light from the president-elect Donald Trump’s administration. An October report by Greenpeace stated that the “disclosure form shows significant investments in the fossil fuel industry, and two of the fossil fuel companies Trump holds stock in are directly funding the Dakota Access Pipeline”.
Recently, the UN has been more frequently calling out to the American government over some of its discriminatory practices.
A group of UN human rights experts on September 14 urged Jerry Brown, governor of the state of California, to halt the execution of Kevin Cooper, an African American who was convicted of murder following judicial proceedings that reportedly did not meet international standards of fair trial and due process. He will be the first to be executed when the use of lethal injections resume in California. This is despite a 2009 warning by five federal appellate judges, which said that the state of California could “be about to execute an innocent man”. Six additional federal appellate judges also joined in registering dissenting opinion that Cooper never had a fair hearing to prove his innocence.
In August, the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent concluded in a report that the history of slavery in the country justifies reparations for African Americans. It called the killings of unarmed African Americans by security forces with impunity a “current human rights crisis” that needs to be urgently addressed.
Kiai had also undertaken a 17-day visit in July and issued a forceful statement at the conclusion of his visit.
“Today, unfortunately, America seems to be at a moment where it is struggling to live up to its ideals on a number of important issues the most critical being racial, social and economic inequality, which are often intertwined,” he had said.
Though the US “is an impressive, complex and imposing nation”, its experiences with various forms of diversity and complexity have not always been smooth.
“The country was founded on land stolen from its indigenous Native Americans; its early economic strength was built on race-based slavery against people of African descent; and successive waves of immigrants have faced discrimination, harassment or worse,” Kiai had said.
UN diplomats have expressed worry over how much Trump would take into account UN opinions considering his past statements of calling the UN “a political game” and his threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“Where do you ever see the United Nations? Do they ever settle anything? It’s just like a political game. The United Nations – I mean the money we spend on the United Nations,” he had said during his presidential campaigns.
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