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U.N. Human Rights Committee Historic Review of U.S. Compliance with ICCPR

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Members of the Indigenous Peoples Working Group with United Nations Human Rights Committee members, Yvonne Donders (middle) and Dr. Changrok Soh (right). Photo by: Keola Kauhane Castro (Kanaka Maoli).

U.N. Human Rights Committee Historic Review of U.S. Compliance with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The Water Protector Legal Collective joined dozens of U.S. civil society organizations in calling for accountability for human rights violations.


November 13, 2023


Nizhoni Begay, Communications Coordinator

Palais Des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland — On October 17 and 18, 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (CCPR) reviewed U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Water Protector Legal Collective (WPLC) joined dozens of other U.S. civil society organizations from across the country in providing testimony in support of shadow reports submitted ahead of the review highlighting policies and practices in the United States that violate the civil and political rights asserted by the international treaty.

The United States is obligated to abide by the ICCPR, which is one of only three international human rights treaties the country has ratified. In accordance with the treaty reporting requirements, the United States should issue regular reports prior to review periods. Although the Biden Administration could have issued an updated report for this review period, instead, the United States chose to rely on the report submitted to the CCPR late, just five days before the end of the Trump Administration. Notably, in 2021, the United States claimed that “climate change, access to safe drinking water, homelessness, and access to health care, including reproductive health care” are outside the scope of the Covenant despite the clear connection to civil and political rights for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people in the U.S. For many U.S. civil society organizations, the failure to provide an updated report already signaled a lack of engagement from the United States.

U.S. Civil Society NGOs and human rights advocates submitted shadow reports in advance of the CCPR review. WPLC submitted a report to the UN and our recommendations made to the United States from our report included: immediate release for Indigenous U.S. Political Prisoner Leonard Peltier in accordance with decision A/HRC/WGAD/2022/7 from the U.N. Group on Arbitrary Detention, ceasing all use of private military security companies against Water Protectors, taking all effective steps to safeguard the principle of free, prior, and informed consent as set out in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and creating a Treaty violations redress mechanism separate from the U.S. Supreme Court for Treaties made with the U.S. and Indigenous Nations.

During the 139th session, the Committee members questioned the U.S. delegation composed of U.S. Ambassador Michele Taylor, and other federal and state government officials. The review focused on a range of fundamental human rights, including Indigenous rights and decolonization, voting rights, freedom of expression and the crackdown on supporters of Palestinian rights, sexual and reproductive rights, trafficking, prisoners’ rights including death by incarceration, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, the criminalization of homelessness, children’s rights, and the failure to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities in Gaza.

One of the initiatives that was born out of a recognition that death by incarceration (life sentences without parole) disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous peoples–as well as a question from Vice Chair Soh regarding clemency for Leonard Peltier–was a Joint Statement regarding the Release and Freedom of Political Prisoner, Leonard Peltier authored by WPLC and signed by U.S. civil society NGOs and human rights advocates present in Geneva.

On the last day of the review, many of the committee members, as well as those present from civil society who had traveled to Geneva, expressed frustration with what they characterized as the U.S. delegation’s failure to meaningfully answer the questions being asked during the review. During the closing remarks given by U.S. Ambassador Michele Taylor, dozens of U.S. Civil Society turned their backs in spontaneous, silent protest, motivated by deep frustration and outrage over inadequate, canned responses from the U.S. delegation.

Photo by: Jamey Keaton (AP).

Following the review, the U.N. Human Rights Committee issued a formal report and in their concluding observations, the Committee found the U.S. out of compliance with the treaty on most of the issues the groups had raised. The Committee raised concern at the “obstacles to the recognition of Indigenous Peoples, which impede non-federally recognized communities to enjoy the same rights in relation to policies and activities that affect them” and “lack of protection of indigenous lands and sacred sites from the impact of extractive industries, military infrastructure, and toxic and nuclear waste.” The Committee recommended the United States “[a]dopt measures to guarantee access of Indigenous peoples to their lands and sacred sites and to effectively protect their lands” in accordance with the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. Notably, the committee asked the United States to “[t]ake additional measures to honour the treaties that it has entered into with Indigenous Peoples and strengthen mechanisms for consultation with Indigenous Peoples on their implementation.” The committee explicitly named their concern at the amount of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2-Spirit relatives “disproportionately affected by life-threatening forms of violence, homicides and disappearances” and called on the United States to improve data collection and analysis, as well as thorough investigation of MMIR cases. Additionally, the Committee made observations about racial profiling and racial disparities in the criminal justice system which disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic/Latino people in the United States. The committee called on the United States to provide law enforcement with training on “ethnic and cultural awareness and the unacceptability of racial profiling” as well as to “take additional measures to effectively eliminate racial disparities at all stages of the criminal justice system, including by … increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration.”

Executive Director Natali Segovia reflected on the importance of participation in international fora, “Although the international system is imperfect, the reality for Indigenous Peoples is that if we are not at the table, we are on the menu. We have to engage and make visible on an international level, that which is so often invisible “at home.” Historically, Indigenous Peoples weren’t always allowed or heard at the United Nations or international fora. This review, where the Human Rights Committee signaled concern about so many issues affecting Indigenous Peoples, was vitally important and marks a departure from the invisibility plaguing our communities. Our hope is that this review motivates the U.S. to make changes that respect and uphold our relatives' civil and political rights.”

WPLC Staff Attorney Summer Blaze Aubrey said, “Our in-person participation in Geneva is essential. We represent and are Indigenous Peoples fighting to be heard and for our rights to be recognized. Having been to Geneva before, I am pleased to continue this work with WPLC. It is always an empowering and humbling experience to advocate in community with our relatives in this way. We know our ancestors walk with us, especially when we enter spaces that were never meant for us.”

The 139th Session of the UN Human Rights Committee was historic not only because the Committee highlighted a plethora of issues affecting Indigenous Peoples, but also because it shows how far Indigenous Peoples have come in international fora in the struggle and practice of Self-Determination. One hundred years ago in 1924, Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Iroquois Cayuga) Chief, Hoyaneh Deskaheh, traveled to Geneva to address the League of Nations, but was turned away due to the lack of recognition of Indigenous Nations as independent and sovereign nations. Indigenous Peoples again renewed their attempts to interact with the world and have an international voice in the 1970s with a large Indigenous delegation to Geneva to attend the International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations at the Palaís des Nations in Geneva. Two Indigenous organizations, the Canadian National Indian Brotherhood and the International Indian Treaty Council secured NGO status with the U.S. Economic and Social Council – but had to agree that they would not seek full independence and would instead focus on Indigenous human rights.

Today, Indigenous Peoples are highly engaged at the United Nations and other international human rights fora with treaty bodies such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There are also Indigenous specific mechanisms such as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed in 2007 after a long road of 25 years of negotiations. Indigenous Peoples’ continued engagement in international human rights fora is a form of a resistance to show the world we are still here and are rights holders.

U.S. civil society organizations and Indigenous Peoples present at 139th Session.

Watch Day 1 and Day 2 of the Review of the United States:

For more information, visit the UNHCR website.

Born out of the #NoDAPL Movement, the Water Protector Legal Collective is an Indigenous-led legal nonprofit that provides support and advocacy for Indigenous peoples and Original Nations, the Earth, and climate justice movements. For more information about WPLC and to learn how to contribute to WPLC please visit:

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