Indigenous Rights Advocates Question Keith Harper Nomination
“[Y]ou couldn’t answer for a letter that mentioned people’s names, addresses, phone numbers—encouraging people to call and harass them?” McCain asked Harper at the September hearing. Harper responded that the letter was wrong, but he said he had no role in drafting it, laying blame on his co-counsel Dennis Gingold who has since said Harper’s characterization was “puzzling.” McCain has countered that he does not believe Harper, citing inconsistencies in his communications with Congress.
Russel Barsh, who previously worked for the U.N. Center for Human Rights focusing specifically on issues involving indigenous and tribal peoples, says it would be worthwhile for Harper to share much more about his indigenous human rights views, so that Indian country can be better served and suited to know whether it can and should support him. “If Mr. Harper were faced with a complaint before the Human Rights Council against an indigenous authority (such as the Navajo Nation faced in the Hopi land dispute), I wonder whether he would argue that indigenous leaders are subject to, or exempt from international human rights law,” he says. “I would be interested in his thinking on this. It is not an easy question.”
Barsh adds that he has no personal experience with Harper or the Cobell litigation, but he does believe that if the Obama administration is serious about advancing human rights through the U.N. system, it should choose representatives who have experience inside that system, and who know how to work within it.
“Being an effective U.S. lawyer is a good start but does not make someone an effective U.N. diplomat: it's a different administrative and legal system, and it's more about relationships and confidence building than rules,” Barsh says, adding that he previously worked alongside and trained young Native North Americans at the U.N., and he believes many of them would make excellent diplomats.
The Foreign Relations Committee to date has not focused on indigenous rights issues beyond the ones McCain raised during Harper’s two confirmation hearings, yet Harper’s top legislative supporters, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), have repeatedly pointed to his Cherokee ancestry as an important reason for him to be confirmed.
“It’s a history-making nomination, and I hope the Senate moves soon on his nomination,” Boxer said last December, noting that Harper would be the first Native American citizen of a federally recognized tribe to become a U.S. ambassador if he is confirmed. (Chris Stevens, the former ambassador to Libya who was killed in the Benghazi attack at the U.S. consulate in September 2012, was a citizen of the non-federally recognized Chinook Tribe.)
Barsh says that if Congress is going to cite Harper’s Cherokee citizenship as a reason for supporting him, legislators should definitely examine his positions on Indian human rights issues. “If I were on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I would ask, ‘How does your Cherokee citizenship and experience as a Native American lawyer influence your perspective on the pursuit of human rights elsewhere in the world?’” he says. “Do indigenous nations have a role to play in the international sphere?" And, if the Obama administration hopes to gain credibility in Indian country and on the world stage by appointing a high-profile Native American as an ambassador, Barsh says it is fair to ask whether Harper’s Cherokee citizenship makes a difference in his outlook or the way he will do his job. “If yes, things could get interesting if he has gumption and a loose leash,” he says. “If not, then his Native identity is immaterial, regardless of what kind of human being he is.”
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