12/12/2011 Indian Country Today: UN's Declaration One-Year Anniversary: Much to Celebrate, Much More to Be Done:
12/12/2011 Indian Country Today: UN’s Declaration One-Year Anniversary: Much to Celebrate, Much More to Be Done: One year ago this month, the United States formally reversed its opposition to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). While some indigenous rights advocates say little has changed since then, others believe there is much to celebrate. That is because indigenous people are now working hard to make sure that declaration is implemented in all interactions with nation-states.
At the second White House Tribal Nations Conference, on December 16 of last year, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would “lend its support” to UNDRIP. “The aspirations it affirms, including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples, are ones we must always seek to fulfill,” Obama said. “I want to be clear: What matters far more than words, what matters far more than any resolution or declaration, are actions to match those words.”
Actions were precisely what Indigenous Peoples were looking for after Obama’s announcement. It took them more than 20 years to draft and negotiate the declaration, which provides a human rights framework for the world’s approximately 370 million Indigenous Peoples. The U.N. General Assembly adopted it on September 13, 2007, with 144 states in favor, four against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.) and 11 abstaining.
Australia, New Zealand and Canada later endorsed the human rights declaration, leaving the U.S. as the last of the four to sign on. So when Obama made his historic announcement, Indian activists in North America shifted their focus from advocacy to implementation.
Indeed, a query to the White House about how the declaration would be implemented was referred to the State Department. Spokeswoman Tiffany Miller responded by e-mail that there is no simple answer. “As you know, the declaration has implications for many agencies across the U.S. government,” she said. “However, I can tell you that the Obama administration is committed to making U.S. support of the declaration meaningful.”
Carmen played an important role in the international forums that developed the declaration. Over the past year, she has led and participated in dozens of workshops and presentations before tribal governments and organizations. Her goal has been to educate Indigenous Peoples about the declaration, the better to use it as a tool in every interaction with federal, state and local governments.
“The recognition of rights is the basis for peace,” Carmen said. “The denial of rights is the cause of conflict. The interactions of the past—we can’t forget them because there’s redress and restitution, which is also included in the declaration. But the discussion can start on a new level based on recognition, upholding and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in this declaration that the U.S. is now a party to. It’s an amazing step forward.”
The declaration is beginning to be applied in both international and domestic settings. A good example took place last January during the continuing negotiations involved in the drafting of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is being created under the auspices of the Organization of American States.
“When there was a challenge to the proposed language, the chair said, ‘We need to fall back on the language in the U.N. declaration on this issue,’ ” Carmen recalled. “That may not sound like much, but it was the first time that happened. And previously the U.S. and Canada always opposed using the declaration as the minimum standard for the discussion on the American level. But they didn’t say a word in opposition this time—they couldn’t, because they support the declaration now.”
The declaration was instrumental in the U.S. in another important issue this year—namely, the protection of a sacred shell mound at Sogorea Te/Glen Cove, California. “There was a 109-day spiritual encampment at the site, so it was huge and it was special because it was the first time the Bay Area Indian community rallied around the declaration,” said Mark Anquoe, Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, IITC’s administrative and communications coordinator.
Not everyone working in the arena of indigenous rights has seen that kind of progress over the past year. Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, believes the U.S. State Department distorted the declaration’s meaning of Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination and needs to rectify its error before progress can be made. He noted that Article 3 of the declaration reads, “Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
But Newcomb said the State Department “did not tell the truth” about Article 3 in its 15-page white paper issued December 16, 2010. “In its statement, the State Department said it was ‘pleased to support the declaration’s call to promote the development of a new and distinct international concept of self-determination specific to Indigenous Peoples’ (emphasis added).
“The State Department expanded on this falsehood by saying that the ‘declaration’s call is to promote the development of a concept of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples that is different from the existing right of self-determination in international law.’ This is patently and blatantly false. This was never the understanding of the process that led to the adoption of Article 3 and its relationship to the international human right of self-determination found in the international human rights covenants. By its statements of bad faith—statements it has not disavowed in the past year—the United States destroyed the very basis for implementing the key provision in the U.N. declaration that Indigenous Peoples were working toward in their efforts to create positive reforms in the area of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. This needs to be rectified as a first step in talking meaningfully about ‘implementing’ the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
In an interview with ICTMN, Michael Leroy Oberg, co-coordinator of Native American Studies at the State University of New York, Geneseo, and author of Native America: A History, is similarly concerned. He called Obama’s “lending of support” to the declaration a “nice gesture” but does not think it will turn out to be more than that. He feels there are still many problems associated with implementing UNDRIP, and they can be found in both the executive and judiciary branches.
“The meaning of ‘self-determination’ in the declaration, is much more literal than that which has developed in the United States over the past half century,” said Oberg, “and much less constrained by some of the long-standing and, I would argue, colonial assumptions built into American Indian policy.”
The courts, Oberg feels, have more power to enforce UNDRIP than does the White House. “The Supreme Court especially—and especially with regards to Indians in New York state—has placed significant limitations on tribal sovereignty and the rights of Native nations,” Oberg said. “Only an optimist of the most sunny sort would expect the declaration, I am afraid, to have any significant impact on the conduct of the judicial branch of the government.”
12/19/2011 Wall Street Journal By JOHN W. MILLER: The effort to lift the ban on mining uranium in Virginia received a setback Monday with the publication of a report by the National Research Council advising the state to draft tough new regulations to prevent health and environmental risks before it allows uranium mining. The issue is important for Virginia Uranium Inc., which is controlled by Toronto Stock Exchange-listed Virginia Energy Resources Inc., and owns 119 million pounds of uranium deposits underneath an old tobacco farm owned by the Coles family in southern Virginia.
The company has been lobbying the Virginia legislature to lift the ban, imposed in 1982 after the disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, so it can cash in on uranium prices that are around $50 a pound, five times their level 10 years ago, valuing its holdings at more than $5 billion. Uranium prices typically track the price of oil, and with 432 nuclear reactors in the world, 63 under construction and 152 on order, the market is still considered solid, despite the disaster earlier this year in Japan.
While the National Research Council, which was asked by the Virginia legislature for an evaluation, did not advise against lifting the ban, and found that uranium mining in the state was “economically viable”, it also found contamination risks in the mining waste dumps known as “tailing ponds”, as well as risks proper to Virginia, such as possible earthquakes and high water levels. Uranium mining elsewhere in the U.S. occurs in dry places such as Texas and Colorado.
The Council concluded that the need for new rules to contain these risks constitutes “steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and/or processing could be established within a regulatory environment that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment.”
Patrick Wales, a geologist for Virginia Uranium Inc., said the report was not a surprise and not an obstacle to their business model. “There are best practice solutions to every issue raised in the report,” he said. “And we’ve factored in the necessary time for the regulatory process estimated by the report to implement those practices.”
For example, Mr. Wales added, “We are fortunate that the underlying geology at the Coles Hill site is a very hard granite rock that has largely remained unchanged for the last 400 million years. This kind of setting will help ensure the safety and maintenance of our tailings facilities beyond the 200-1,000 requirement specified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”‘
The report concluded that it would take “five to eight years” after the granting of a mining license before mining uranium would be safe in Virginia. The legislature is due to debate and vote on the issue next year.
Virginia Uranium “is confident that this lengthy time frame will allow the General Assembly, state and federal agencies and community residents to thoroughly examine every aspect of this issue and make sure that the regulations are in place and best practices are fully adopted to protect the health and well-being of our community,” said Mr. Wales.
There was some good news for Mr. Wales’s company. “Only the deposits at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County,” which is owned by Virginia Uranium Inc., it said, “appear to be potentially economically viable at present.”
But Paul Locke, chair of the committee of 14 experts which has spent the last two years compiling the 302-page report, was less sanguine. “There are unknowns, because this has not been done a lot in the U.S.,” he said. The problem, Mr. Locke said in a phone conference, is the long contamination periods of uranium.
The report says, “The decay products of uranium provide a constant source in uranium tailings for thousands of years, substantially outlasting the current U.S. regulations for oversight of processing facility tailings.” If those leak, that can lead to “a risk of cancer from drinking water,” the report says.
There are of course, uranium mines elsewhere in the world, and they have methods deemed safe for dealing with their waste. The Council found that mining uranium in Virginia would likely be safe if those methods were copied. However, one problem is “there’s no real analogue” for mining uranium in Virginia, said David Feary, who directed the study.
Only a small cluster of companies in western states mine uranium in the U.S., and the industry is dominated by giants like Rio Tinto Plc., Areva, Cameco Corp. and Kazatomprom. The number of people employed in exploration in the U.S. increased to 211 in 2010 from 175 in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Kazakhstan, a vast landlocked nation in central Asia that belonged to the Soviet Union, now produces one-third of global supply. Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia now mine three-fifths of the world’s uranium. The U.S., which still has the world’s most nuclear power stations, now has to import over 90% of its uranium.
Prices stayed low in the 1990s, as the Soviet Union flooded the market by converting Cold War nukes into commercial uranium. It was only with the rise of oil prices in the 2000s that uranium prices started to climb back up.
Write to John W. Miller at email@example.com