The Trump administration’s plan to lease Alaska’s coastal plain for oil and gas drilling has hit a tiny snag: It could be a human rights violation. The United Nations is calling for an investigation into whether the policy violates the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination due to its impact on the Gwich’in people.
The coastal plain is a key piece of Gwich’in cultural identity. It’s so important to the Gwich’in that they refer to it as the Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or “Sacred Place Where Life Began.” That importance comes from the fact that the Gwich’in—who call themselves the “Caribou people”—depend on the Porcupine caribou for sustenance and culture, and Porcupine caribou use the coastal plain as their calving grounds.
“It’s considered so deeply sacred that the Gwich’in refuse to set foot in that area, even in times of famine,” said Carla Fredericks, Director of First Peoples Worldwide and the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has worked with the Gwich’in Nation to contest development plans for a year and a half.
Prompted by a letter submitted by the the Gwich’in Steering Committee and supporters last fall, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is calling for an investigation of the proposal to open up the region to development. In their letter to the U.S. government sent August 7 and released this weekend, the committee highlighted the Gwich’in peoples’ concerns that planned development by the U.S. was “conducted without the free, prior and informed consent of and adequate consultation with Gwich’in Indigenous peoples, despite the serious harm such extractive activities could allegedly cause.”
The investigation is based on the fact that the Trump administration’s move to open up the coastal plain may violate the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the U.S. is a signatory of. For CERD, merely calling for an investigation is a big deal. The committee made the call under their urgent action and early warning procedure, which is only invoked when “serious violations” of the convention are suspected.
“It’s really quite an extraordinary step, because it has to be a situation that is so serious that...there could be serious, grave and irreparable harms perpetrated,” said Fredricks.
Though the investigation call is focused on the U.S. government, it has huge implications for companies directly and indirectly involved in Arctic drilling, too. CERD’s letter could lead extractive companies that are planning to purchase leases in the Arctic to reconsider, since drilling in the coastal plain could be a massive legal liability. Due to a years-long movement waged by the Gwich’in, human rights organizations, and environmental groups, every major bank besides Bank of America has also said they will no longer finance drilling in the Arctic. Fredericks hoped the UN’s scrutiny will signal to Bank of America that they need to enact a similar policy.
“What this helps show is that it’s not enough for them to refuse to finance individual projects in the Arctic, and it’s not enough for them to make these decisions ad hoc,” she said. “The fact of the matter is, this is an issue of serious human rights concerns the global community at this point, and that should show them that they need a firm policy.”
In short, even if the fact that oil and gas expansion isn’t even a good financial investment anymore doesn’t convince to pass on Arctic drilling, maybe the UN’s concern for human rights violations will.
Now that the call for investigation is filed, the U.S. will now have an opportunity to respond to the UN. Meanwhile, environmental and Indigenous rights groups are also suing the Trump administration, hoping to stop extraction in the coastal plain before it takes place, and thereby protect a sacred Arctic region that’s central to Gwich’in life.