US Ambassador Keith Harper: Violence Against Indigenous Women ‘Global Scourge’

Gale Courey Toensing, Indian Country Today


Describing violence against indigenous women and girls as a “global scourge,” Keith Harper, the United States ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, called on the world peace organization to use everything in its toolbox to address the problem and urged the upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to raise awareness of it throughout the U.N. system.

“As we prepare for the upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, we express great concern that indigenous women and girls often suffer multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and poverty that increase their vulnerability to all forms of violence. We also stress the need to seriously address the high and disproportionate rates of violence, which takes many forms, against indigenous women and girls worldwide,” Harper said on Tuesday (June 24) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. ”Indigenous women and girls have the same human rights and fundamental freedoms as everyone else, and a common recognition of those rights must underpin efforts to address violence against indigenous women and girls.

The remarks were delivered in a Joint Statement on Eliminating Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls on behalf of 35 of the council’s 47 member states – Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Congo, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, St Kitts and Nevis, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The statement was not a U.S. statement, but Harper and his team led the effort, working with the 35 different countries to come up with a statement that all of them agreed on, a staff member at the U.S. Mission said. Since the U.S. led the process, the U.S. ambassador read the statement before the council, the staff member said.

One of the key elements to stopping violence against indigenous women and girls is providing access to justice systems, Harper said. “Improving access to justice and empowering Indigenous Peoples are critical to this effort,” he said. Given that access, Indigenous Peoples themselves may well be in the best position to combat violence against indigenous women and girls, Harper noted. “They are closer and better able to address the issue when provided with tools and the legal capability to stop the violence. We will strive to, and encourage other states to, where appropriate, enable and empower Indigenous Peoples to better address these issues themselves by providing resources, adopting legislation and policies, and taking other necessary steps in an effort to stop the cycle of violence that affects them,” he said. He also stressed the need for coordination and dialogue between state and indigenous justice institutions to help improve indigenous women and girls’ access to justice and bolster awareness campaigns, including ones directed at men and boys.

Harper suggested a series of actions necessary to help end “the global scourge of violence against indigenous women and girls,” including comprehensive support services for survivors and improved data collection to determine the scope of the problem. “It will demand intensified measures to provide accountability for perpetrators and redoubled efforts to prevent abuse,” he said. He emphasized the need to respect and promote reproductive rights. “[T]he right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, and access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services must be integral to our efforts to end violence against indigenous women and girls,” Harper said.

The issue of violence against indigenous women and girls needs more attention, Harper said, encouraging “the relevant UN mechanisms” – such as the Commission on Women’s Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – to use the UN’s existing tools more effectively to prevent and address the problem. He said the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to be held in New York in September should highlight the problem, spread awareness of it, and respond to it throughout the U.N. system. “The meaningful participation of indigenous representatives in the World Conference and its preparatory process will be essential in this regard,” Harper said.

Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen, is the first citizen of a federally-recognized tribe to become an U.S. ambassador. He is new on the job: The Senate voted 52 – 42 on his confirmation June 3 and seven days later he hit the ground running as the 26th regular three week session of the Human Rights Council opened in Geneva on June 10.

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