UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Offers Law Students Rare Access to Highest Levels of International Human Rights System

Nov. 30, 2021

Students at University of Arizona Law have the unparalleled opportunity to work on Indigenous human rights issues under the supervision of UN Special Rapporteur Calí Tzay.

Almost two years into his first term as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Francisco "Pancho" Calí Tzay has accomplished a great deal. He’s delivered reports to the U.N. General Assembly on the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous peoples and on Indigenous peoples living in urban areas, testified in front of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, completed countless academic visits, and responded to around-the-clock communications from Indigenous communities.

Behind the scenes, students at University of Arizona Law have had the rare and remarkable opportunity to support the Rapporteur on these projects, assisting in ways big and small. With the guidance of Seánna Howard, director of the International Human Rights Advocacy Workshop, students provide assistance on a wide range of research and advocacy projects in an effort to help fulfill the primary responsibility of the U.N. mandate: the promotion and protection of Indigenous peoples' human rights.

Crafting an Expert Testimony

Gabby Centorami was only a semester away from completing her Master of Legal Studies degree when she heard about the opportunity to work with the Rapporteur.

“I remember when I applied for the workshop, I had told Professor Howard, ‘I'm not enrolled in the Indigenous People Law and Policy program, but I am very passionate about advocacy and if you just give me the tools, I can bring the skills,’” recalled Centorami.

Supporting the U.N. mandate means that Calí Tzay's primary office is based out of University of Arizona Law, where he holds positions on the faculty as lecturer and associate director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy (IPLP) program’s human rights clinical programs. This is not the first time the IPLP has hosted a special rapporteur focused on the human rights of Indigenous peoples. S. James Anaya was appointed to the position in 2008 during his time as a College of Law professor until 2014.

As part of her work with the Rapporteur, Centorami assisted with preparing the expert testimony that Calí Tzay would deliver in the case Maya Kaqchikel Indigenous Peoples of Sumpango and Others vs. Guatemala which was presented to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in June 2021. The case centered around the exclusion of the Maya Kaqchikel from utilizing radio frequencies by the Guatemalan government.

Collaborating with a small team of University of Arizona students and the Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic out of Suffolk University, Centorami helped to prepare a written testimony highlighting why this issue was vital for the social inclusion and survival – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – of the Maya people. The work consisted of exhaustive research, identifying relevant legal standards, breaking down the articles of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and refining the appropriate voice for the report. Through Professor Howard’s workshop, Centorami and the team would spend time interviewing Calí Tzay to understand his stance on the issue as both the U.N. Rapporteur and a member of the Maya Kaqchikel community of Guatemala. 

Even as graduation passed by, Centorami didn’t stop assisting with the project until the Rapporteur had completed his testimony in June. “I told Professor Howard I am very passionate about this; I want to continue helping. I want this to be finalized,” she explained.

As she awaits the official verdict to come down, Centorami continues to advocate in her professional role as part of global trade, ethics and compliance with Raytheon’s Office of General Counsel, noting that one of the things that attracted her to the position was the opportunity to ensure inclusion, diversity and representation were a priority in every decision.

A 'Heavy' Responsibility

For the past three semesters, Wangari Kiboi has been working with and learning from the Rapporteur. Pursing an SJD in Indigenous People’s Law and Policy with a research focus on Indigenous justice systems, she has a distinctive appreciation for the significance of this work.

“It's heavy, but it's a really great honor,” said Kiboi who assisted last year with the report on COVID recovery efforts in Indigenous communities. “It really hits you when you see the work that you've contributed to being presented to the United Nations. It's an experience that I'm not likely to forget and I'm going to be forever grateful for.”

As part of his mandate, the Special Rapporteur is requested by the Human Rights Council (HRC) to present two annual reports, which normally include discussion of specific themes or issues of particular relevance for the rights of Indigenous peoples. 

In September 2021 Calí Tzay presented his report to the HRC on COVID recovery, analyzing the adverse and disproportionate impact of confinement and emergency measures observed on Indigenous peoples during COVID-19 and made recommendations for inclusive recovery strategies. As part of the team working on the report, Kiboi spent eight months researching, soliciting input on, and writing about the increased health risks for Indigenous peoples, their sources of resilience in front of the pandemic, as well as State and Indigenous responses to the pandemic.

Beyond establishing a thorough understanding of the subject matter, preparing a report for the HRC required Kiboi to develop a new style of writing different from any legal analysis she had done before.

“I had to quickly learn to adjust my tone and language,” explained Kiboi. “When working on U.N. documents, unlike legal writing which is somewhat direct and harsh, the language has to be toned down and very diplomatic.”

To assist the Rapporteur, students from the college of law participate in Professor Howard’s workshop where she trains them on foundational international law concepts in connection with the IPLP curriculum. This preparation is just one of the reasons Calí Tzay felt comfortable with his choice to ask the college to support the mandate for a second time.

“Since beginning my work with the IPLP clinic students, it is clear to me that no other university in the world does a better job than the University of Arizona in terms of preparing and training its students with the level of knowledge and expertise needed to do this type of human rights advocacy work," he noted.

'Liberating' Work

Dillon Dobson, a third-year law student and a member of the Cowlitz tribe, knew he wanted to work in Indian Law. Having worked in affordable housing development, Dobson felt he had a clear idea of the path he wanted to pursue after law school. But after his first semester supporting the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, Dobson was quick to acknowledge how the experience had changed his outlook. 

“I came in thinking I knew a lot. And then I come to find out that I was operating within this very constrained understanding of what it means to be a native person and an Indigenous person,” said Dobson. “There's so much more and there are all these different communities all around the world that are so incredible and inspirational.”

Working with native communities before law school has given Dobson a unique appreciation for international Indigenous advocacy which he described as free from the social and political constraints of domestic federal Indian law.

Complex and often contradictory, federal Indian law encompasses several hundred years of federal policies some of which are supportive of tribal sovereignty and some of which are not. Working within international law and outside of those limitations was liberating and prompted Dobson to reevaluate the aspirations he holds for his own advocacy work.

“This workshop, and the IPLP program more broadly, has radically changed my perspective on what I think we need to be pushing forward for and toward as Indigenous people,” explained Dobson. “When Indigenous peoples have the power to define themselves, to define their realities, and to really connect and relate to nation states on a partner basis - I think beautiful things can happen.”

Unlike the traditional research projects he’s completed during law school, in supporting the Rapporteur, Dobson and his classmates are engaging in work that has real-world stakes. Indigenous peoples across the world experience the consequences of historical colonization and invasion of their territories. They face discrimination because of their distinct cultures, identities and ways of life, and are disproportionately affected by poverty and marginalization. The mandate was created to advise the U.N. and States about best practices to promote global human rights standards for Indigenous people, develop studies and reports related to protecting Indigenous peoples' human rights, and to respond to specific allegations involving the violation of Indigenous peoples' human rights.

For Dobson, the experience has been cathartic and affirming.

“There's a lot of weight that comes with that responsibility. But you know, this is why I came here and what I’m being trained to do is to learn how to carry that weight and to advocate for the people.”