Fair Comment: Spat Over Federal Takeover Has Latin America Watching

Nov. 15, 2002

By Martin Edwin Andersen
Insight Magazine

When 40 heavily armed federal agents backed by a helicopter stormed the hardscrabble Nevada ranch of two elderly sisters, confiscating 232 of their cattle at 4:30 one Sunday morning last September, more than an Indian tribe's rights were trampled. The raid sent a powerful signal throughout the hemisphere: When the United States signs regional human-rights agreements, only other states not these United States need comply.

The early-morning cattle roundup was carried out by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents. Swooping in like the cavalry of old on horses, all-terrain vehicles and trucks, the raid was the government's crowning offense in its 30-year battle waged against Carrie Dann, nearly 70, and her sister Mary, almost 80, who are members of the Western Shoshone tribe.

This skirmish, however, brought resistance from an unexpected quarter. In October the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) weighed in on the long-simmering dispute between the federal government and the Western Shoshone. For the first time in a case involving Indian rights in the United States, the IACHR found that the treatment of the Danns violated international human-rights laws.

The IACHR found merit in the Danns' argument that the United States used illegitimate means to gain control of the Indians' ancestral lands. The manner in which the lands were usurped, the IACHR said, violated several articles of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. These included its equal-protection clause, the right to a fair trial and the right to private property.

The IACHR demanded that the U.S. government return the Danns' confiscated cattle and halt further actions against the sisters until the organization's review of the case was finished. Despite the ruling, however, the Danns' cattle were sold at an auction. Said a BLM spokesman flatly: "The OAS has no jurisdiction here."

The BLM justified its actions by saying that the Danns had fattened their livestock on "public" lands without paying the grazing fees non-Indians are required to pay. Not only were the Danns' animals seized and sold at an auction; the government also charged the sisters $50,000 in fees and levied a $3 million fine for willful trespass.

The Danns, like other Western Shoshone, have refused to pay fees for grazing their animals on land they consider part of their birthright. At issue are some 26 million acres in Nevada alone, rangeland the Shoshone say they never legally turned over to the federal government, which now claims to own it.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Lima, Peru, signing the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The document commits the United States to help strengthen the inter-American human-rights system and highlights the need to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

Asked about how the United States should respond to the IACHR decision and whether international human-rights standards apply in this country as well as abroad a spokesman for the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, Roger Noriega, said his boss would have no comment. He referred all questions to the Interior Department, the bureaucratic home of the BLM. Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for human rights, also refused to comment.

Latin American countries are watching the U.S. response to the IACHR to gauge just how seriously to take the body's admonishments concerning their treatment of 35-40 million of the hemisphere's poorest peoples. The lack of justice and fair title to traditional lands has radicalized Indians in southern Mexico, Ecuador and elsewhere.

"It's the BLM that is setting U.S. policy on how we respond to an international-rights body that criticizes the government and calls on it to provide a fair process to ensure Western Shoshone property rights," said Steve Tullberg, Washington director of the Indian Law Resource Center, which brought the case before the IACHR on the Danns' behalf. "Not the State Department, but the cowboys over at BLM."

Human-rights groups traditionally have given short shrift to the protection of property rights, even though these form part of the United Nation's universal declaration on human rights. For Indian peoples, property rights rank at the top of their demands for justice. A conservative administration could do a lot better in strengthening the rule of law, both at home and abroad, than responding by mustering the BLM cavalry.

Martin Edwin Andersen, a reporter for Insight, wrote the legislation signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 requiring the State Department to include indigenous rights in its annual human-rights country reports.


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