Gwich’in Steering Committee Statement on Third Response from the United Nations to Imminent Rights Violations from U.S. Oil and Gas Development in the Arctic Refuge

December 16, 2021

The Gwich’in Steering Committee has noted a third letter from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD). The letter, delivered to the U.S. Government on December 3, 2021, upheld concerns raised in our request for early warning and urgent action to address harms and human rights violations to the Gwich’in should oil and gas development be allowed in the Arctic Refuge.

Specifically, the letter underscored the U.S. obligation under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination “to guarantee the respect of the rights of the Gwich’in and other indigenous peoples in Alaska, including their right to consultation and to free, prior and informed consent, in its future consideration of the project of oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain.”

Through this letter we learned that the U.S. responded in August to UN CERD’s previous queries. Though that response has not been made available to us, we discovered that the U.S. provided a consolidated report to UN CERD in June independent of the UN CERD’s inquiry about the Coastal Plain

In reviewing this report, the Gwich’in Steering Committee is disappointed that the U.S. did not include any of the specific issues we have raised in recent years. We are also alarmed that the U.S. is pushing forward its weak commitment to free, prior and informed consent, by stating to UN CERD, “the United States understands ‘free, prior, informed consent’ to call for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders, before the actions addressed in those consultations are taken.”

This is not free, prior and informed consent as described in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the UNDRIP).

This is the third letter from UN CERD to the U.S. uplifting the fact that the Gwich’in have not given their consent to oil and gas development, among other concerns. The first letter from CERD, delivered August 7, 2020, also asked how the U.S. will protect our sacred sites, prevent violence against Indigenous women, mitigate the climate impact of drilling in the Coastal Plain, and “ensure effective remedies against instances of racial discrimination, including in the context of extractive industries” if oil and gas development is allowed to occur. The second letter, delivered November 24, 2020, raised additional issues and requested that the U.S. fully review its treaty obligations, and that the U.S. take concrete measures to protect the Coastal Plain by incorporating the UNDRIP into law.

“We are grateful that the international community continues to monitor and respond to this situation, even as lease activity is temporarily halted,” said Bernadette Demientieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “It is good to see the U.S. engaging again with the United Nations, but their limit of our right to free, prior and informed consent to only consultation is dangerous and invites destruction of Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). This is a critical reminder that until permanent protections are restored for the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge, everything we hold sacred – our  land, our animals, our elders and our youth – remain under threat of harm from oil and gas development. We urge the U.S to restore permanent protections now for the Porcupine Caribou, for our people, and for this sacred place.”

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