Gwich’in Seek Immediate Remedy to Protect their Human Rights

November 20, 2020

Fairbanks, AK – Following the Trump Administration’s call for nominations for oil and gas leases in the sacred calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the Gwich’in Steering Committee filed a Request for Precautionary Measures with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR is a regional human rights body that works to promote and protect human rights in countries located in the American hemisphere, including the United States and Canada. 

After a rushed approval process, the U.S. is opening up the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas exploration and development that will lead to immediate and long-lasting repercussions in violation of the human rights of the Gwich’in. Giving urgency to the IACHR petition filing, it is nearly impossible to cancel the lease sales once they are finalized. 

“The imminent oil and gas development will cause serious and irreparable harm to the Porcupine Caribou Herd and our way of life. We are caribou people and the caribou are essential to our health, identity, spirituality, culture, and our very survival,” said Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We urge the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to issue precautionary measures to prevent the desecration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s sacred calving grounds, which we call ‘Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit’ (‘the Sacred Place Where Life Begins’). A threat to the Coastal Plain is a threat to the Gwich’in way of life and is a violation of our human rights.”

The petition, filed November 20, 2020, seeks to prevent “imminent, serious and irreparable harms in violation of the Gwich’in’s rights to health and well-being, religion, culture and subsistence, judicial protection, clean environment, and free, prior, and informed consent.”

Remedies sought include canceling the impendiong lease sale, prohibiting seismic exploration, and passing legislation for the permanent protection of the Coastal Plain. Additional remedies include ensuring that the U.S. honors its responsibilities to Indigenous Peoples as well as its obligations under the U.S. – Canadian Agreement On The Conservation Of The Porcupine Caribou Herd.

“Oil and gas drilling in this sacred area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a violation of our Indigenous and human rights. The very fact that we depend upon this essential migratory species whose range spans international colonial borders that have been unilaterally placed within our territory, depicts the multi-national effects to our people from any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd.” Shared Grand Chief Ken Smith of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in the Northwest Territories of Canada. 

“In its reporting of proposed drilling, the U.S. government acknowledged numerous adverse impacts to the physical environment, biological resources, and social systems in Alaska. Despite this, they have embarked on the most aggressive development plan possible without adequate consultation of the Gwich’in,” said Carla Fredericks, Director of First Peoples Worldwide, which is supporting the Gwich’in Steering Committee in the petition process. “The IACHR petition asks for remedy while development is being fast-tracked so as to avoid the destruction of lands and endangerment of people that occurs all too often for Indigenous communities during and after industrial extractive projects.”

The IACHR petition is one of a number of available international instruments activated to protect the Gwich’in from drilling in the Arctic Refuge. A report was filed for the Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. human rights record. The review took place on November 9, and concluded with the U.S. reaffirming support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Gwich’in Steering Committee also filed a petition with the UN Commission to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, which led to an official investigation into the U.S. commencing in August

Other actions opposed to drilling in the Arctic have included litigation from the Gwich’in Steering Committee and allied organizations, policies from more than two dozen international banks including five of the six major U.S. banks to ban project-level financings for any project in the Coastal Plain, shareholder engagement with insurance companies, and passage of the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act by the U.S. House of Representatives. A majority of the U.S. public oppose oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

In a statement about the formal CERD query to the U.S., Demientieff said, “Almost all international human rights conventions recognize the Gwich’in people’s fundamental rights to our culture, health, nutrition, and subsistence. Securing permanent protection for the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd is about our human rights, our way of life, and our very survival.”

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Bernadette Demientieff, Gwich’in Steering Committee,

Shannon Jowett, First Peoples Worldwide,

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