To fix a systematic human rights abuse, it usually takes a government commitment of troops or treasure. It's a big decision to invoke the powers of Congress to cross jurisdictions of nation states, but we do this on occasion to intervene on behalf of vulnerable populations across the globe. We consider it our responsibility as the international standard-bearers of human rights.
We appear, at times, to be hopelessly myopic when it comes to getting things done here at home.
In the case of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the bill that seeks to protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the fix will take only the stroke of a pen. There is no diplomatic negotiation needed, no political capital to be played, no long-term reputational cost to be considered. And yet, our House of Representatives just can't seem to get it done.
The current version of VAWA includes new provisions for immigrants, members of the LBGT community, and Indian Country. The Senate has passed the bill. The House has approved a version that does not include the provision for Native American women.
GOP Congressional House leaders, particularly Eric Cantor (R-VA), oppose this portion of the Violence Against Women Act, calling it "unconstitutional." What is really behind this refusal is unclear.
The provision for Native Americans provides a crucial jurisdictional fix for a loophole in the criminal justice system. If you are a Native American woman assaulted on Indian land, the tragic odds are that you will not be offered protection by the law.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 88 percent of domestic assaults on Indian land are committed by non-Indians. The only authority with jurisdiction to prosecute these cases is the U.S. Department of Justice, and they use the Major Crimes Act as their standard for taking a case. As such, 46 percent of reported assault cases and 67 percent of sexual abuse cases go unprosecuted. The VAWA Native provision would allow tribes to take on the cases that fall below the federal radar. Tribes would be granted authority to arrest offenders and prosecute these crimes through tribal courts, adding to their current jurisdiction over tribal members and other Native Americans.
Many members of Congress do support the full version of VAWA. Incoming House member Dan Kildee (D-MI) said, "The first thing they need to do, these so-called defenders of the Constitution, is they should read it. In the Constitution is the specific reference to the sovereign status of tribes and their recognition by this government."
It is not unconstitutional. It's unconscionable that we would allow GOP House leadership to politicize this issue. Women suffering bodily harm and psychological trauma should not be victimized again by the system that is supposed to protect them.
As the lead lawmakers of the land, it is up to Congress to make sure that we are all protected by rule of law, and it is their job to fix it when this is not in fact the case.
Charlie Clements, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government reiterates that,
By not reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act with inclusion of protections for victims of assaults committed on Native American reservations, members of the House are saying non-Indians who commit crimes enjoy impunity and the victims are denied one of the most basic human rights that of bodily integrity -- the security of one's person.
Since the end of WWII and the subsequent foundation of the United Nations, our government has ascribed to a set of values for humanity called Human Rights. These rights were articulated in the founding document of the UN, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One of the basic tenets of this modern, global Bill of Rights is that everyone should have Right to Life, Liberty, and Security of Person (Article 3). And, all of the Rights contained in this map for humanity "should be protected by the rule of law."
Human Rights, as a body of institutionalized values and normalized international law, is not a theory, it is a practice. Members of Congress do not have discretional decision-making power in this arena. They are bound by treaty -- and public trust -- to uphold these standards.
"This is a real issue, this is not a political issue," said Kildee. "Unfortunately, the way it is viewed often is as if this is a political question. And it's not. It is a human rights question." Let's hold our Congress responsible for accepting VAWA's Native Provisions as the answer.
Lise Balk King is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was previously co-publisher and executive editor of The Native Voice newspaper.
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