Amnesty Int'l Slams US 'Failure' To Protect Native Women

By Joyce Hanson | May 20, 2022, 5:16 PM EDT ·

Amnesty International has decried what it calls the U.S. government's failure to adequately prevent rates of violence against Indigenous women, saying in a new report that not much has changed since the nongovernmental organization last studied the issue in 2007.

Sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women is at epidemic proportions, with nearly one in three experiencing rape and more than half, or 56.1%, of American Indian and Alaska Native women suffering some form of sexual violence, said the U.K.-headquartered human-rights organizations, in its May 17 report.

"While there are over 560 federally recognized tribes in this country, each with a unique history, culture and language, the constant for all Native people is the inevitability of rape," the report said, quoting Native American lawyer and professor Sarah Deer's presentation "How Do Race, Ethnicity and Religion Intersect with Sexual Violence?", given at Brandeis University in November 2017.

The U.S. government has contributed to the epidemic by steadily eroding tribal government authority, taking insufficient action to untangle a "complex jurisdictional maze" that rape survivors face, and failing to provide adequate resources to law enforcement agencies and Indigenous health service providers, the Amnesty International report said.

That complex interrelation between federal, state and tribal jurisdictions ends up undermining tribal authority by letting perpetrators of violence evade justice, according to the NGO's report.

And when women step forward to report sexual violence, they get caught up in the jurisdictional maze that causes significant delays while police, lawyers and courts try to figure out who should take responsibility, often resulting in such confusion and uncertainty that no one intervenes and survivors of sexual violence are denied access to justice, the report said.

"The USA's failure to fulfill its human rights obligations towards Indigenous women is informed and conditioned by a legacy of widespread and egregious human rights violations and abuses against Indigenous peoples, who face deeply entrenched marginalization as a result of a long history of systemic and pervasive abuse and persecution," Amnesty International said.

Congressional passage of the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act have helped some tribal governments restore limited criminal jurisdiction and punishment authority under certain circumstances, resulting in an improvement in women's safety, but the requirements to implement either the TLOA or VAWA are onerous, according to the report.

President Joe Biden signed on March 15 the renewed Violence Against Women Act, drawing a positive response from some Native American groups who said the law's reauthorization through 2027 will help end the epidemic levels of violence against Indigenous women.

"The long awaited reauthorization of VAWA comes at a critical time when American Indian and Alaska Native [women] face unprecedented levels of violence on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages," Jana L. Walker, senior attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center and director of its Safe Women, Strong Nations project said in a statement at the time. "We hope that VAWA 2022 will be a strong step forward in helping to end the epidemic levels of violence against Native women and lead to justice for all victims."

Yet lackluster police response, limited resources for tribal police, poor interagency coordination and insufficient investigations have all led to negative consequences for women who suffer sexual violence, Amnesty International said.

"Law enforcement presence in Native communities is significantly lower than in non-Native communities; survivors in rural areas in particular are far less likely to have access to timely law enforcement response," according to the report's executive summary. "Coordination between federal, state and tribal law enforcement remains inadequate; levels of cooperation vary and survivors of sexual violence are frequently passed off to different agencies."

Similarly, health care and support services for American Indian and Alaska Native women who survive violence are lacking, the report said, pointing to untimely sexual assault forensic examinations including rape kits. The report criticized the federal government's "severe" underfunding of the Indian Health Service, as well as IHS understaffing and confusion within the service over the availability of rape kits and how trained professionals can administer the exam.

Prosecutions of sexual crimes also came under scrutiny in the report, with Amnesty International saying that funding for U.S. attorney's offices in Indian country and the number of attorneys responsible for Indian country prosecutions has decreased by 40% since 2013.

The report recommended that Congress get involved in the issue and recognize "the inherent concurrent jurisdiction of tribal authorities" over crimes committed on tribal land, regardless of the tribal citizenship of those accused.

Amnesty International urged a legislative override of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish , which ruled in 1978 that tribes did not have the authority to prosecute non-Native people, a doctrine that remains in place today for almost all crimes. This carries particular weight for Indigenous women since research from the National Institute of Justice and other sources suggests the vast majority of perpetrators of violence against Native women are non-Native.

When asked to comment on the Amnesty International report, a U.S. Department of the Interior spokesperson pointed to DOI Secretary Deb Haaland's April 22 announcement that she is moving forward to implement the Not Invisible Act, a measure she sponsored while in Congress that focuses on addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The Indian Health Service said in a statement Friday that the agency focuses on not only the physical health but also the mental, social and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

"We recognize that this is more than a justice-related issue, it is also a public health issue," the IHS said. "We are actively working in partnership with the [U.S.] Department of Health and Human Services to implement Executive Order 14053, 'Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People,' to develop a comprehensive plan to support prevention efforts that reduce risk factors for victimization of Native Americans and increase protective factors."

On May 5, the DOI said it has finally tapped 37 people to sit on a commission established by the act. The cross-jurisdictional advisory commission of survivors, family members of missing and murdered individuals, law enforcement, tribal leaders, and federal partners are slated to advise the DOI and the U.S. Department of Justice on how to improve intergovernmental coordination and work effectively with tribal, state and federal law enforcement.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

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