UN Questions If Trump’s Arctic Oil Drilling Plan Violates Indigenous Peoples' Human Rights

Porcupine Caribou, the biggest caribou herd in North America, crossing a chilly river in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Gary Braasch/National Wildlife Federation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The pushback against President Donald Trump's controversial decision to open up an Arctic Refuge for drilling has kicked off with a stream of lawsuits and a United Nations Committee on the case. 

Back in August, the US Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt — a former fossil fuel lobbyist announced plans to sell oil and gas leases in the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, opening up 78,000 square kilometers (30,100 square miles) of rolling tundra and wetlands to drilling. Located in the Alaskan North Slope region, the refuge is home to a rich array of American biodiversity, including polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, moose, caribou, wolves, eagles, lynx, wolverines, martens, and beavers. It's also the main calving ground for America's largest caribou herd, the Porcupine herd, on which the Indigenous Gwich’in people of Alaska and northern Canada depend.

The decision to open the area up to fossil fuel giants was met with condemnation from Indigenous groups and an array of environmentalists and conservationists, many of whom have said they would fight the plan to the end.

Now, after an appeal from the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has formally asked the US to provide more evidence about how the drilling in Alaska might affect indigenous peoples. 

In a letter to the US Ambassador to the UN, the committee said it had received information that the plan may infringe on the human rights of the Gwich’in indigenous peoples who claimed it would affect them by “reducing their traditional source of food, the caribou, encroaching on the sacred site of the Coastal plain, increasing health risks due to environmental degradation, including air pollution, and by increasing the risk of violence against indigenous women due to the arrival of extractive industry workers.” 

“The planned oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is 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 Chair of the Committee, Yanduan Li, wrote

In opening up the Coastal Plain, a key piece of cultural identity for the Gwich’in people, the plan may violate the UN's International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the US is currently signed up to.

The Trump administration disagrees, however. In a statement given to The Hill, an Interior spokesperson described the UN letter as “misinformed” and claims the plan will actually benefit the indigenous peoples in Alaska by injecting jobs and money into their community. 

However, last week also saw two lawsuits being filed in an attempt to block the fossil fuel leasing plans. First, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of the National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Stand.Earth, arguing the plan would threaten the area’s unique ecosystems, along with the people and cultures that depend on them. Then, Trustees for Alaska filed another lawsuit on behalf of 13 clients charging the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management with violating the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

“This is one of the most remarkable places on the planet and it’s unconscionable that the Trump administration is trying to turn it into an industrial zone,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement

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