Americans generally view human rights abuses as problems that happen elsewhere. The drama surrounding Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest and flight to the American Embassy in Beijing this past week--complete with front-page coverage in American newspapers--underscores the standard narrative that, when it comes to human rights, the United States is a beacon of hope in a dark world. As a New York Times editorial put it yesterday, "We have little doubt of the Americans' commitment to Mr. Chen's safety and his cause." And as if that weren't enough, the Times reminded its readers that "this episode is first and foremost an embarrassment for China and a glaring reminder of its abysmal mistreatment of its own citizens."
The Times' editorial board probably got it right about Chen and the American commitment to the cause of human rights in China, even if that commitment does sometimes give way before other considerations in the Sino-American relationship. From what I can tell, however, the New York Times has not reported anywhere in its pages the conclusions of James Anaya regarding the failures of the United States to respect the rights articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Anaya is the special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. His mandate, renewed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2007, is primarily to "gather information on alleged violations of the rights of indigenous peoples" and forward recommendations to the UN on means of remedying those violations. At the conclusion of a twelve-day fact-finding trip in the United States, Anaya stated that "it is evident that more robust measures are needed to address the serious issues affecting Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples in the United States, issues that are rooted in a dark and complex history whose legacies are not easy to overcome."
Although his formal recommendations have not yet been drafted, Anaya suggested that lands taken from Native Americans should, in some cases, be restored. The Black Hills of South Dakota, the ancestral home of the Oglala Sioux, were specifically mentioned. "I'm talking," he said, "about restoring to indigenous peoples what obviously they're entitled to and they have a legitimate claim to in a way that is not divisive but restorative."
Official policies toward Native Americans were shameful in the nineteenth century (as when the U.S. Congress in 1877 passed a law unilaterally reversing concessions made to the Oglala Sioux in an 1868 treaty), but they haven't been much better in the twenty-first century. Many Native American communities suffer from poverty, unemployment, suicide, and alcoholism rates that far outpace national averages. The reasons are not hard to see. From the perspective of those outside the United States, the fundamental problem is a long history of human rights abuse.