Document Type



Harvard Human Rights Journal




The United States has long positioned itself as a leader in global human rights. Yet, the United States lags curiously behind when it comes to the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. This recalcitrance is particularly apparent in diplomacy regarding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, the Declaration affirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination and equality, as well as religion, culture, land, health, family, and other aspects of human dignity necessary for individual life and collective survival. This instrument was advanced over several decades by Indigenous Peoples themselves as a means to remedy the harms of conquest and colonization, along with legacies of dispossession and discrimination persisting to this day. The United States first voted against the Declaration in 2007, and now, having reversed that position, is still stuck behind international organizations and governments that are working to implement it. The examples are myriad. From a new infrastructure at the UN to legislation in Canada, Mexico City, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the world community is dedicating itself to realizing the aims of the Declaration. Not so the United States. In international meetings, U.S. representatives diminish the Declaration’s legal status when they could be embracing it as a vehicle for human rights advocacy; sharing best practices to and encouraging others to follow suit. At home, federal lawmakers are ignoring the calls of tribal governments to start implementing the Declaration in domestic law and policy. Increasingly, these positions of the United States are difficult to reconcile with respect for the dignity of Indigenous Peoples, much less global human rights leadership. Thus, it is time for the United States to abandon the notion that Indigenous Peoples’ human rights are “aspirational” and instead embrace the legal, political, and moral imperative to advance the Declaration both at home and abroad.