About the Author: Eric Wilson is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho. He has been a federal servant at the Department of the Interior for over 38 years. He is the former Chair of the UPR Indigenous Issues Working Group and the current Co-Chair of UPR Working Group 3.
I was initially reluctant to address environmental justice in Indian policy because I saw it as a distraction from our efforts to communicate about tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship between federally recognized tribes and the United States. Through the involvement of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), however, I came to see the importance and necessity of having a federal program that provides space and opportunities for all indigenous peoples to raise environmental concerns and have them addressed by the federal government, especially in the context of human rights obligations.
Back in 2009, the Department of State had some big ideas about how the federal government should prepare and report, for the first time, its work and accomplishments on human rights for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). We decided to host a series of meetings around the U.S. – and to do them in less than three months. This became known as “the road show.”
It was an ambitious schedule, visiting regions and engaging with civil society stakeholders: community groups and non-governmental organizations, local and state governments and officials, and, of course, tribal governments and their citizens.
For the tribal component of the UPR road show, the University of New Mexico’s School of Law agreed to host a session that was quickly augmented by the Navajo Nation offering a day trip to the Reservation for a meeting with their officials and citizens. Experienced federal staff, including representatives from the EPA’s OEJ, participated with these sessions.
Collaborating with EPA led to the first ever U.S. side event on “Environmental Justice and Indigenous Peoples” at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, this past May. The event provided the opportunity for the U.S. to highlight our collaboration with both federally recognized tribes and all other indigenous peoples to address their environmental, public health and other quality of life concerns. This served as a government “best practice,” demonstrating to other nations the necessity of governments to meaningfully engage all indigenous peoples, not just those officially recognized.
Our August 17th Civil Society Consultation marked the resumption of the UPR process. This consultation was organized by the interagency UPR workgroup that I co-chair. Our team set the bar a bit higher for coordination and for ways to help civil society participate in honoring human rights in our collective daily work. I encourage you to join us in identifying ways that the federal government can more effectively work with all parties interested in providing for human rights and other quality of life needs (i.e. environmental, economic, social and cultural) of vulnerable populations, including indigenous peoples. And, plan to participate in our future public meetings, which will be posted on the Calendar for UPR Working Group Civil Society Consultations. You can also engage with us on the UPR process as we work to implement the 2015 UPR recommendations.