REDESCA's Visit to Louisiana and Alaska, USA: It is urgent to address the impact of climate emergency on indigenous peoples' human rights

August 28, 2023

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Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights

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Washington D.C.- The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights (REDESCA) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted a working visit from May 22nd to May 27th of 2023 to the states of Louisiana and Alaska to observe the human rights situation of indigenous communities who have been deeply impacted and forcible displaced due to climate change. During the working visit, REDESCA witnessed firsthand the lasting effects of climate induced displacement and the consequent impact on the quality of life of these populations. In this regard, REDESCA notes that the Peninsula Principles define climate displacement as "the movement of people within a State due to the effects of climate change, including sudden and slow-onset environmental events and processes, occurring either alone or in combination with other factors".

The Special Rapporteur and her team received information from government officials at federal, state, and local level, as well as from civil society organizations and nine Native communities, on their assessment on this matter and the measures taken. In this line, prior to the visit, REDESCA had meetings with the Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other specialized offices of the Federal Government. Also, during its visit and regarding state and local authorities in Louisiana, REDESCA met with representatives from the Terrebonne and Lafourette Parishes, the Louisiana Senate, and the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Parallelly, in Alaska, REDESCA met with the field office of Alaska of the EPA and representatives of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Moreover, REDESCA gathered testimonies from the following native communities who have been severely impacted by climate change: Pointe-au-Chien, Gran Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, Atakapa-Ishak-Chawasha of the Grand Bayou Village, Jean-Charles Choctaw Nation, and representatives of the Houma Nation of Louisiana, and from the native villages of Kivalina, Nunapitchuk, Newtok and Kwigillingok of Alaska. Although the Office made efforts to meet with the federally recognized tribes in Louisiana, after contacting some of their representatives, it was not possible to do so.

REDESCA would like to give special thanks to the authorities of the United States in charge of addressing this situation and who contributed for the preparation of this visit, as well as to the Mission of the United States to the Organization of American States for their continued support during the visit and for connecting the Office with the relevant entities. In the same vein, REDESCA is especially grateful to the nine Indigenous communities facing the harms of climate devastation that received the Special Rapporteur and her team during the working visit, for sharing their experiences, testimonies, and expertise on the subject. Additionally, REDESCA takes this opportunity to also extend its gratitude to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Earthrights International and the Alaska Institute for Justice for all their valuable support during this visit.

General Situation of native communities in Louisiana & Alaska

These communities are facing multiple risks from natural factors, which in certain cases have been exacerbated by human-made actions and the lack of resources to address this situation. In this sense, coastal Tribal Nations are experiencing the catastrophic effects of climate change and human-made disasters, aggravated by insufficient measures to slow down the negative impacts of climate change and provide much needed resources to Tribal Nations for climate resilience and adaption. Although this situation has been known for a long time, effective and urgent measures based on a human rights approach and with the effective participation of the communities have not been fulfilled. This is critical considering that the indigenous communities are not only facing these impacts and historical discrimination, but also deprivation of essential services, including but not limited to housing, sanitation and potable water, risk management services, and healthcare.

Within this context, REDESCA notes that, although there are ample federal programs aimed to provide support for most of these communities, issues surrounding federal recognition, self-determination and governance of tribes, business activities, biases about Native Americans, and land tenancy are proving to be challenging for the implementation of solutions. Thus, although the communities have organized in various instances to access funding for these matters, those attempts have been unsuccessful, either by not complying with some formality or because they lack the federal recognition needed to represent themselves before the federal government. In these cases, tribal governments are forced to gain access to funding by applying to local and state entities who receive grants and will distribute it amongst the affected population. Or conversely, they must apply with other legal representation such as a non-governmental organization or a native corporation. Consequently, REDESCA notes with concern that in some cases the funds do not reach the target communities, the bureaucratic processes become a burden for them and the relocation processes in some cases do not occur at the necessary scale, and when they do occur, they do not necessarily ensure the effective participation of the communities in the making of these projects.

According to a 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO): "Unclear federal leadership is the key challenge to climate migration as a resilience strategy. Given that no federal agency has the authority to lead federal assistance for climate migration, support for climate migration efforts has been provided on an ad hoc basis. For example, it has taken over 30 years to begin relocating to Newtok and more than 20 years for Isle de Jean Charles, in part because no federal entity has the authority to coordinate assistance, according to stakeholders in Alaska and Louisiana".

REDESCA has gathered and systemized the pertaining information and presents a series of conclusions and observations on the main findings of its visit to Alaska & Louisiana, aimed at bringing the United States legal system, practices and policies on these issues in line with international and Inter-American norms and standards. When presenting these findings and recommendations, the Special Rapporteur stated that: "There is an urgent need to act to protect the lives and cultures of the front-line communities facing climate change in Louisiana and Alaska. We have witnessed major abandonment by local and national officials in front of humanitarian emergency situations. Even if local and state governments could tend to these matters, if there is not a bolder federal leadership that can steer these actions, then the live and culture of these people will be lost for good." She added, "A country as developed as the United States has no excuse for leaving these communities so unprotected. Immediate action is needed to ensure that climate change does not deepen the social injustice that has affected these indigenous communities for centuries."

In this regard, as previously recognized by the IACHR and REDESCA, the international human rights protection commitments and obligations that the United States has voluntarily adopted emanate from a series of international and regional instruments. These include the Charter of the Organization of American States and the American Declaration, as well as the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this vein, it is worthy to highlight that the Inter-American Court has established that, for the member states of the OAS, the American Declaration is the text that defines the human rights referred to in the Charter and it is a source of international obligations.

REDESCA is an autonomous office of the IACHR that was specifically created to support the IACHR in fulfilling its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

No. RD196/23

9:15 AM