Amnesty International Applauds Introduction of Landmark Legislation Addressing Jurisdiction Regarding Rape of Native Women
Tuesday, July 29, 2008 11:02 AM

Amnesty International USA
Press Release
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Amnesty International Applauds Introduction of Landmark Legislation Addressing Jurisdictional Maze That Allows Rape of Native Women to Go Unpunished
Legislation is a 'Tremendous Step Forward' for Native Rights in the United States; Should be Further Strengthened in Collaboration With Tribal Leaders.

(Washington, D.C.) -- Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) applauded today's introduction of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008, a groundbreaking attempt to tackle the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against American Indians to go unabated. The legislation, introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, includes a section that specifically addresses disturbing rates of sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women, a subject that Amnesty International drew attention to in its 2007 report, Maze of Injustice: the failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA. The legislation is also co-sponsored by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Joseph Biden (D-DE), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Pete Domenici (R-NM), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Gordon Smith (R-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT) and John Thune (R-SD).

"This legislation is an historic effort to tackle major jurisdictional challenges that allow crimes against Native American and Alaska Native peoples to flourish," said Larry Cox, executive director of AIUSA. "It will also open the door for Congress to address erosion of tribal authority. It is gratifying that the legislation is receiving bi-partisan support from a wide range of Senators, as this is a tremendous step forward in the fight to improve justice for Native peoples in this country."

The Amnesty International (AI) report exposed the disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence that Native American and Alaska Native women suffer -- 2.5 times higher than for non-native women in the United States, according to Justice Department statistics -- and the complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that often allows perpetrators to rape with impunity. The lack of trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) at Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities to provide forensic exams and gather essential evidence is another factor that leads to a failure to prosecute. The AI report raised concerns about the lack of prosecutions and the need for accurate information about prosecution rates.

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008 is in direct response to concerns raised by tribal leaders, tribal organizations, Native American and Alaska Native women and the AI report, which helped bring widespread attention to the high rates of crimes on tribal lands and the obstacles that victims face in securing justice. Specifically, the Act is intended to clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, and tribal governments with respect to crimes committed in tribal communities; increase coordination and communication among federal, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies; restore tribal governments with necessary authority, resources, and information to address crimes committed on tribal land; combat violence against Indian and Alaska Native women; and to increase and standardize the collection and distribution of criminal data among all levels of government responsible for responding to and investigating crimes in tribal communities, including the data necessary to establish whether or not crimes are being prosecuted.

Amnesty International noted that while the importance of the legislation cannot be underestimated, additional changes are needed before enactment to ensure that the legislation will benefit all Native American and Alaska Native peoples.

Amnesty International said that the welfare and safety of American Indian and Alaska Native women -- as citizens of tribal nations -- is directly linked to the authority and capacity of their nations to address violent crimes. The organization said that it is critical that the legislation be developed in direct collaboration and with the participation and consent of Native American and Alaska Native peoples, and that it must ensure that tribal authority is restored and maintained.

Amnesty International also called on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which handles funding levels for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, to seize this opportunity to increase funds to these critically under-resourced agencies. Without appropriate funding for law enforcement and medical experts that respond to Indian victims of violent crime, the problem will persist, the organization said.

"Given the historic developments this year, we now need Congress to follow through and ensure that this legislation is strengthened and passed," said Renata Rendón, Americas advocacy director for AIUSA. "Lawmakers must strive to increase support for this Act, improve its content through meaningful dialogue with Native leaders and advocates, and ensure its impact is actually felt."

In a one-year update to the original Maze of Injustice report, AI noted that throughout the year lawmakers have taken other notable steps to address the injustices perpetrated against Native women. For example, the U.S. Senate passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in February 2008, with an amendment by Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) that would seeks to mandate that the IHS develop standardized sexual assault policies and protocols in cooperation with tribes.

AI also noted promising initiatives on the local level:

* In Oklahoma, a law was passed mandating access to free sexual assault forensic examinations (rape kits) for all victims of sexual assault.

* The Alaska Senate established a task force to review the Village Police Safety Officer Program. The task force published a report in February 2008 recommending enhanced efforts to recruit and retain officers, thereby increasing staffing.

* On Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (North Dakota and South Dakota), the town council of McLaughlin approved Pretty Bird Woman House's zoning application to establish a shelter for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. It is the only one on the reservation.

These developments are welcome, but AI is concerned that they have not amounted to actual change on the ground. Local advocates surveyed for the Maze of Injustice update told AI that they had seen little or no improvement for Native women in the last year. To ensure concrete and measurable change, it is crucial that all relevant bodies in the federal government, in consultation with tribal authorities, take immediate action. As a start, the IHS should adopt and implement national uniform protocols on dealing with sexual violence and prioritize the establishment of SANE programs, while U.S. attorneys must begin comprehensive data collection that is made public, so that the number of sexual assault cases prosecuted is clear. For any cases that are not prosecuted, a reason should be given for why.

"The urgency of this issue is undiminished," said Cox. "This opportunity for lasting change must not be lost."

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For a complete update on federal and regional initiatives designed to support Native survivors of sexual violence and decrease such violence overall, please visit

Published in: "Amnesty International Applauds Introduction of Landmark Legislation Addressing Jurisdictional Maze that Allows Rape of Native Women to go Unpunished," Amnesty International USA, 23 July 2008.