The US Has Decided Not to Take Action Against Tribe For Death of Missionary

After the 2004 tsunami, this member of the Sentinelese tribe was photographed firing arrows at a helicopter. © Survival International

There was plenty of media coverage when John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American Christian missionary, died in a shower of arrows after stepping foot onto the island of a remote tribe, the Sentinelese, in November 2018. Among the many questions hanging over this unlikely situation, some people wondered whether the tribe could face murder charges for their actions. 

The US State Department has now stated it is not looking to take any further action against the Sentinelese, calling it a "tragic situation". Samuel D Brownback, the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said in a press briefing on February 7 that the US has not pushed the Indian government to take any legal action against the tribe, nor are they pursuing any sanctions to be imposed.

While the decision ultimately rests with India, the technical legal jurisdiction of the North Sentinel Island, it appears the threatened tribe are unlikely to face any punishment.

“The United States Government has not asked or pursued any sort of sanctions that the Indian Government would do against the tribal people in this case. That’s not been something that we have requested or have put forward,” Brownback told reporters at a press conference in Washington DC.

“It’s a tragic situation and a tragic case of what’s happened, but that’s not something that’s been asked,” he added.

This is generally in line with what most experts on indigenous rights have been saying since this situation kicked off. As many people pointed out at the time, Chau was much more of a threat to the Sentinelese than they were to him.

The “outside world” has attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese on a few occasions since the end of the 19th century, however, they have made it perfectly clear they do not want to be assimilated, and so remain some of the most isolated people from industrialized civilization – for good reason too. As a result of their isolation, they have not acquired immunity to the many diseases of the outside world. Even a common cold could be enough to wipe out the whole island’s population.

Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, an indigenous human rights organization, said in November that any justification of Chau's visit to the island showed an "extraordinary level of ignorance" and highlighted "why it’s so dangerous for such people to be anywhere near uncontacted tribes.” 

“The idea that widespread deaths amongst newly contacted tribes is a matter of past history is easy to disprove,” he added. “There are many cases in the last few decades where this has been recorded, especially in Brazil and Peru. For example, the Nahua, Peru, suffered over 50 percent of deaths in the 1980s following contact.”

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