International Responsibility for Human Rights Violations by American Indian Tribes


Klint A. Cowan


The American Indian tribes have a unique status in the law of the United States. They are characterized as ‘sovereigns’ that predate the formation of the republic and possess inherent powers and immunities. Their powers permit them to create and enforce laws and generally to operate as autonomous governmental entities with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. They enjoy immunity from suit and exemption from federal and state constitutional provisions which protect individual rights. These powers and immunities provide a connection between tribal governments and US international human rights obligations. This essay explores this connection. It examines whether the tribes may breach the international human rights obligations of the US, whether the tribal violations may incur US international responsibility, and if so, what consequences might result. It constructs an argument that the US has failed to implement fully its international human rights obligations and that it can be held internationally responsible for tribal violations of human rights. This argument leads to policy recommendations for the US and tribal governments.


Constitutional Law | Human Rights Law | Indigenous, Indian, and Aboriginal Law | International Law

Date of this Version

August 2005