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US tribe turns to international commission in resort fight

March 27, 2015

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (AP) — The Navajo Nation, the largest tribe of Native Americans, has turned to an international human rights commission that has dealt with death penalty cases and foreign killings in its effort to draw attention to an Arizona mountain that tribes consider sacred.

Getting the case considered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights could be a long shot.

Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the petitions the Washington-based commission receives are rejected because they do not comply with requirements, such as exhausting all remedies in the domestic justice systems, commission spokeswoman Maria Isabel Rivero said.

More than 9,000 petitions are awaiting an initial study that often takes years, including 310 filed from within the United States.

The San Francisco Peaks are among northern Arizona’s most recognizable features. The mountain range is home to a ski resort and is a place where Navajo medicine men gather plants and soil for use in ceremonies.

Battles played out for decades in U.S. courts over whether the Arizona Snowbowl resort could expand and produce snow, which tribes argued would desecrate the land.

The court system ultimately ruled that the tribes’ religious rights wouldn’t be violated and that using treated wastewater to make snow wouldn’t make anyone sick.

Now, the Navajo Nation wants the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to weigh in.

The commission often deals with matters from Latin American countries and death penalty cases in the U.S.

It has issued reports on the disappearance of people in Colombia; the right to fair trials in Mexico; the death of a radio host in Brazil; and the murder of an anthropologist who researched people displaced in her home country of Guatemala.

The commission was formed in 1959 by the Organization of American States, which has a goal of protecting and promoting human rights.

The United States does not recognize the jurisdiction of an international court associated with the commission. Therefore, any recommendations that would result from the Navajo Nation petition wouldn’t be binding on the federal government.

But the U.S. State Department said it believes the commission does important work for the protection of human rights and gives petitions due consideration.

The petition filed on behalf of the Navajo Nation alleges the most recent human rights violation came when the city of Flagstaff upped the volume of treated wastewater sent to the ski resort and extended a contract without consulting with the tribe.

City spokeswoman Kim Ott said contract extensions are allowed to be handled administratively.

The petition seeks a declaration that the United States is in violation of human rights. It also seeks cancellation of the U.S. Forest Service permit that lets the ski resort operate, and a way to ensure indigenous people’s sacred sites are protected.

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