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Native Women Seek Justice at U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 2 2011 (IPS) - The United States is facing international scrutiny for its apparent failure to prosecute criminals who enter indigenous territories to prey on Native women and girls.

Between 60 and 80 percent of violent victimisation of Native American women is perpetrated by non-Natives, says a U.N. expert on legal matters related to women’s rights violations worldwide.

Rashida Manjoo, the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, notes that in the U.S., indigenous women are much more vulnerable to abuses than any other ethnic group in the country.

Manjoo, who met a number of officials and rights activists in her investigation of the situation of women in the United States, cited data showing that one in three Native women is raped during her lifetime.

In most cases, the rapists go free because the tribal elders have limited power to prosecute those who commit crimes on their territory. Native people say it is very hard for them to get help from the U.S. authorities.

“Since 1978 our tribal government, like all Indian nations, has been stripped of the authority to prosecute rapists and abusers that are non-Indians,” says Terri Henry, councilwoman for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

In 1838, when the European colonisers forced Cherokees to leave their homelands in the South, thousands of natives died on their way to Oklahoma due to lack of food, clothing and shelter.

“Like all other federal statutes and policies towards Indians, the Removal Act legalised the deaths of thousands of Cherokee children, women and men,” explains Henry, who met Manjoo last month.

Henry, who is also a member of the Indian Law Resource Center, says there will be no end to violence against Native women until U.S. authorities “remove the legal barrier that ties the hands of tribal governments”.

The tribal courts can only impose a sentence of one to three years. Whilethe crime of rape in North Carolina, for example, carries a maximum penalty of 40 years, she says, “So for most tribal victims, a three-year sentence is a far cry from equal justice before the law.”

In January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the formation of a new task force to protect Native women from violence and abuse.

“We know too well that tribal communities face unique law enforcement challenges and are struggling to reverse unacceptable rates of violence against women and children,” Holder said.

“The task force has been a priority for me since my visit with tribal leaders last year,” he added. “It is a critical step in our work to improve public safety and strengthen coordination and collaboration concerning prosecution strategies with tribal communities.”

The 13-member task force is directed to produce a trial practice manual on the federal prosecution of crimes against women in Indian territories, and includes the U.S. attorney for Nebraska and assistant U.S. attorneys from five other western U.S. states, as well as judges, prosecutors and attorneys from several Indian nations.

The Barack Obama administration also recently endorsed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a move that was welcomed by the leaders of world’s 370 million indigenous peoples.

The historic U.N. declaration, which was rejected by the George W. Bush administration, recognises that indigenous peoples all over the world have the right to control their lands and practice their traditional belief systems.

“The Declaration can be used as a basis for making demands that the federal government fulfill its responsibilities to tribes and carry out its obligations to promote and respect the human rights of Indian nations and tribes,” said Robert T. Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center.

He thinks “it’s time for the U.S. Congress to examine [its] human rights obligations to American Indians and to assess whether existing laws and policies adequately respect the rights established in international law.”

During her two-week visit to the Indian territories and elsewhere in the United States, the U.N. special rapporteur also emphasised that racism and poverty remain deep-rooted problems. Of the more than one million women currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system, for example, black and Latino women represent 46 percent. And the vast majority of them have committed non-violent offences.

Manjoo is due to submit her report to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in the next three months.

Meanwhile, Henry describes indigenous women’s situation in the United States as “a human rights crisis”.

“We are glad that the rest of the world is beginning to take notice,” she said.

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