Law | Opinion

Steve Russell: Take fight over sacred Apache site to higher court

Supporters rally at Oak Flat, a sacred Apache site in Arizona. Photo from Facebook

Judge and professor Steve Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, urges the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Apache tribes to take their battle to Save Oak Flat to an international human rights court:
Hundreds of Apaches are occupying Oak Flat, a sacred site to Apache people since long before the state of Arizona, where Oak Flat lies, existed. The occupation is an effort to prevent the destruction of Oak Flat by an Australian transnational mining corporation that got the rights to it in a shady deal engineered by the two U.S. Senators and a Congressman from Arizona. The Apaches, courting arrest, have asked for people of faith to back them up. At a protest rally in February, individuals from at least five other tribes appeared to back up the San Carlos Apaches. The New York Times published an op-ed backing them up, calling the Oak Flat deal “sneakily anti-democratic even by congressional standards.”

Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake and Rep. Paul Gosar, all Republicans, engineered the gifting of Oak Flat to Rio Tinto with an amendment to a “must pass” defense bill at the last moment, when there could be no debate. The imminent destruction of Oak Flat is a product of the colonial government, so there’s little chance that government’s legal system will back up the Apaches.

What if international law would back them up? What if they could appeal to a higher court?

The American Convention on Human Rights aspired to establish “a system of personal liberty and social justice based on respect for the essential rights of man.” This multilateral treaty was opened for signature in 1969 under the auspices of the Organization of American States. The OAS was established in 1948 with the United States and 20 other states as charter members. Canada finally joined in 1990, and the OAS headquarters is in Washington, D.C.

Article 20 of the American Convention on Human Rights protects freedom of conscience and religion, a freedom that the Apaches cannot enjoy with their sacred sites destroyed. Article 23 protects the right to participate in the colonial governments, a right denied in the underhanded way the gift to Rio Tinto was accomplished. Article 25 promises “judicial protection” against acts that “violate the fundamental rights recognized... by this Convention, even though such violation may have been committed by persons acting in the course of their official duties.”

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: Take Oak Flat to a Higher Court: Why US & Canada Fear Human Rights Courts (Indian Country Today 6/1)

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