Rights panel: Get consent of the people

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 28, 2012

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B efore deciding whether to approve or disapprove the proposed Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission is urging the Navajo Nation Council, President Ben Shelly and the U.S. Congress to get the consent of the Navajo people first.

On May 21, the commission unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the Council, Shelly and Congress to comply with the free, prior and informed consent standard outlined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

According to the commission's resolution and the standard, the Navajo people have the right to participate in decisions affecting Diné land, territories, water resources and other resources such as the proposed Little Colorado River settlement.

"One of the legal principles and standards recognized by the U.N. Declaration is indigenous peoples have the right to consent to their resources being affected by respective nation-states," said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the commission's office.

Free, prior and informed consent is an international standard that is different from the federal-tribal consultation process and it allows for those impacted to have a voice, Gorman said.

The resolution spells out the standard of free, prior, and informed consent and how Navajo people should be involved in negotiating settlements, the taking of and/or return of lands, territories and resources, surface and subsurface interests - all of which is owned or acquired by the Navajo people.

The resolution states that the "free" standard means that the Navajo people secure and receive information in a transparent manner, without coercion and without incurring a cost.

"Prior," the resolution states, means information must be shared with the Navajo people well in advance of a final decision.

"Informed" means the information must be fully understood by the Navajo people, including information shared in the Navajo language and in audio and visual forms.

The fourth standard of "consent" means the Navajo people must agree to the taking of their lands, territories and surface and subsurface interests through a referendum vote.

'Navajo tradition teaches us that water is life," Gorman said. "Water is used in everyday life from ceremonies to growing crops and preserving livestock. Water is one of four sacred elements included in sacred medicine bundles.

"The U.N. declaration vindicates Navajo perspective on water and provides that water is a resource that the Navajo people must give free, prior and informed consent," he said.

The resolution also calls on the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, the Council, Shelly and Vice President Rex Lee Jim to reject the proposed water bill, also known as S.B. 2109 and its companion H.B. 4067, and the Little Colorado River settlement.

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