Controversy in store for seating of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues? Not likely.
What it’s for, how its members are chosen, its 2 separate tracks, and some potential controversies when member states vote on April 13.
With a vote set to occur on April 13 to decide half of the membership of the 16-member United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Nations (UNPFII), various human rights advocates, a range of international politicos, and U.S. State Department officials are brushing up on the rules of the forum and what it takes to secure a spot at one of the main places where the UN takes positions and advocates for worldwide Indigenous issues.
This year, with the Ukraine and Russia both nominating officials for one available spot on the forum’s state government-nominee track from the “Eastern European states” region – and the U.S. putting up a controversial nominee for an uncontested position – the usually perfunctory elections are expected to be filled with more tension than usual, according to some U.S.-based Indigenous advocates and UN experts.
Member states of the UN Economic and Social Council decide whom they will elect to the first track, and if there is no contest in the nominations, the person nominated by a member state is almost always chosen to serve on the forum. All 16 positions are unpaid and meet for 10 days per year in Geneva.
There is only one nominee to the first track hailing from the U.S: Keith Harper, a lawyer with the Jenner & Block law firm and former U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council from 2014 - 17.
UN experts say that it is unusual that Harper has chosen to campaign for a position for which he is all but guaranteed.
The only other nominee in the “Western European and other states” section of this first track is Tove Søvndahl Gant, of Denmark, who is running for re-election.
Two members are allowed to be voted into the “Western European and other states” section of the first track for the 2023 - 25 session, so Harper and Søvndahl Gant are overwhelmingly likely to move forward, unless something highly unusual happens.
Still, Harper and the Biden administration’s State Department officials who nominated him aren’t taking any chances.
Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has created a campaign page on the U.S. State Department website, listing various noteworthy credentials, including an American Bar Association “Human Rights Hero” award. Therein he highlights a quote from Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); he presents a heavily edited YouTube video with several abrupt cuts presenting him talking about his personal experiences and UNDRIP; and he says his resume will help him bring “best practices” to the forum.
The campaign website further cites Harper’s “impressive career as an attorney and diplomat dedicated to human rights, particularly those of Indigenous women and girls….”
The YouTube campaign video, in total, had received 59 views and 3 likes as of the morning of Monday, April 11.
Judging from the campaign site and the accolades listed – as well as the fact that he has no competition – Harper seems like he would be a lock for the position, even if he weren’t the only one chosen by the State Department for the job.
So why the need to campaign?
Perhaps it’s because Harper actually has some serious problems in his record that an objective Indigenous human rights expert might have problems with, according to a number of Native American lawyers, advocates, non-profit leaders and others that Indigenous Wire has heard from in the three months since Harper’s nomination was announced.
Whether he has truly been supportive of Indigenous women is one question that Majel Russell, a Montana-based Indian affairs lawyer with Elk River Law Office, specifically raised during the first of his two UN ambassador confirmation hearings in 2014.
“I’ve had two confrontations with Keith Harper, and during the first confrontation somebody actually had to come and get in between us to stop him from haranguing on me,” Russell told Indian Country Today during Harper’s 2014 confirmation hearing process.
“I was stunned,” Russell continued. “I was absolutely shocked that he would follow me and just start railing on me. I was pretty spooked, but I’m an old reservation girl, so I told him that I know what I’m talking about, that I have trust land [and] have been monitoring this situation for years.”
The incident had happened in 2005 after Russell had made a presentation about the Cobell trust litigation, she shared, with more than one witness backing her up. Russell is a citizen of the Crow Tribe.
“He flipped out,” one witness told Indian Country Today in 2014 about the incident. “He was physically threatening Majel. It was scary. His body language was in her face; he was yelling in her face, calling her a bitch.”
Another witness who was at the meeting referenced above has since confirmed the details of the confrontation to Indigenous Wire.
“It was actually worse than Majel described,” the witness said. “We were worried she was going to get physically hurt.”
Harper has never publicly and directly responded to Russell’s claims, and he apparently isn’t able to address concerns during his nomination process, according to Biden administration officials.
Besides questions surrounding Harper’s treatment of women, others – including Native American sacred site advocates, disenrolled tribal citizens, lawyers and tribal officials he has allegedly treated poorly – have raised concerns about his record.
The late-U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) took the lead on raising questions about Harper’s temperament, his dealings involving the Cobell trust settlement (including alleged letters of harassment signed off on by Harper, which he denied at the time, but his close colleague rebutted his denial), and campaign finance dealings during Harper’s confirmation process during the Obama administration.
Harper narrowly prevailed in the Senate after the late-Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to help push his nomination through without the previously required 60 Senate votes.
Among the questions currently being asked about Harper’s nomination by Senate-affiliated officials familiar with McCain’s concerns – including some Democrats – are the following:
1) How was Amb. Keith Harper chosen by the Biden administration for nomination to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Nations?
2) Since his nomination is uncontested in the region he is nominated to, why is the State Department campaigning for his selection?
3) Was State aware of issues raised by the late-Sen. McCain regarding Amb. Harper's previous nomination to the UN when State selected him for this position?
4) Was State aware of allegations against Amb. Harper by lawyer Majel Russell?
5) Was State aware of tribal leaders' and lawyers’ 2020 - 21 complaints involving Amb. Harper and the law firm for which he previously worked, involving defamation, racketeering and fraud? These complaints, perhaps coincidentally, were settled on Jan. 19 just before Harper was nominated to his current position.
6) Amb. Harper is well known to have been a major Democratic campaign finance bundler. Did his activity on behalf of Democratic candidates at all influence State's nomination of him?
Indigenous Wire asked the State Department all of the above questions, but officials there were not interested in responding to specifics.
Instead, a State Department spokesman offered a blanket statement of support for Harper.
“The United States is proud to support the candidacy of Ambassador Keith Harper given his leadership and advocacy for the human rights of indigenous peoples,” the spokesman said in a statement. “His decades of relevant experience, and remarkable record of accomplishment as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, leave little doubt that he is the right voice to join the UN’s Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples.”
But that “little doubt” part is simply untrue, according to people who are closely watching Harper’s current nomination.
What is true is that Harper has made many friends in Washington, D.C. while working as a lawyer, previously for the Native American Rights Fund, then at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and now for Jenner & Block. Being a top campaign cash bundler for President Barack Obama and becoming a political appointee also made him an attractive person to befriend for some politicos, including some Natives climbing the often challenging power and influence ladder.
Among them is Charlie Galbraith, a former Native affairs staffer with the Obama White House, who has reportedly pledged loyalty to Harper and who has since ended up working alongside him at both Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and Jenner & Block.
“It makes all kinds of financial sense to stay on Keith’s good side,” one lawyer who sometimes works with Harper in D.C. told Indigenous Wire. “Attorneys find it fattens their wallets, and Democratic politicians find it helps their finances. Invites to the White House, to swanky receptions, being part of the power set – it all comes part and parcel with knowing Keith.”
Many of Harper’s friends stuck up for him during his previous difficult confirmation process that took two Senate hearings to get him through, but he still felt aggrieved. He and his wife, Shelby Settles Harper, blasted some people on social media for not sticking up for him, implying the couple had done favors for them that had not been returned.
At the same time, Harper has also made a laundry list of enemies.
Russell, for instance, recalled in 2014 him seeking “retribution” after their confrontation, with him threatening to tell a tribe that she “had not represented them well in a previous trust settlement.”
“Everybody has been really nervous about speaking out,” she said at the time. “We are really concerned that Keith will try to do something, like go after our clients, or harm us in some other way. I’m really going out on a limb here, because I don’t know what kind of retaliation Keith will take.”
Some detractors are actively working to subvert his nomination to the UNPFII — even with its low election stakes, and even though his seating is almost a forgone conclusion.
A contingent of Republican Senate officials has already lined up to take issue with Harper’s nomination, and, with McCain’s fomer staffers now working for some Democratic senators during this important midterm election year, some believed that there would have been a chance to prevent Harper’s nomination had it required Senate confirmation.
However, in recent days, senators and other U.S. officials have learned about the UN process of selection for the position for which Harper is nominated, realizing the Senate plays no role at all, and they have stepped up pressure on the State Department to account for Harper’s nomination when there are ostensibly less controversial candidates that the Biden administration could have selected.
Had the nomination required Senate confirmation, Harper might have had a serious battle on his hands. But, as it stands, a majority of representatives from UN Economic and Social Council states would have to oppose him for him not to make it over the finish line. There are over 50 members of said council, ranging from such diverse nations as Kazakhstan to Russia to Afghanistan.
The UN purposely doesn’t publish the names of the specific officials on the council for “practical reasons,” Rosemary Lane, a social affairs officer with the UN, told Indigenous Wire, which ends up making the process less transparent.
Some people involved with the UN were surprised that Harper is now going through the motions of pretending to run for the current position, because they know he must know how the process really works.
“Once the U.S. chose to nominate Amb. Harper, it was almost guaranteed that he would get a seat on the forum, if there was no competition, as there is not,” one UN-affiliated official who previously worked with Harper told Indigenous Wire. “Maybe the United States’ State Department is pretending that they don’t know the processes of the UN, but that’s not really a good excuse.”
As for the second track to the UNPFII – the track nominated by non-state Indigenous peoples and groups – there are currently three individuals running for one seat from the North America region for 2023 - 25: Brenda Gunn, nominated by the Manitoba Métis Federation; Angela R. Riley, nominated by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation; and Geoffrey Roth, who currently holds the position, nominated by the National Indian Health Board.
Both Roth and Riley have told Indigenous Wire that they do not plan to campaign for the position.
UN Economic and Social Council President Collen Vixen Kelapile will make a decision on which one of those three individuals is to be seated, probably by July – and in accordance with UN rules – according to UN officials.
Lane said that Indigenous organizations that are accredited to the UNPFII can register to participate virtually to watch the proceedings on April 13.
If people want to follow the proceedings of any open meetings on April 13, they can do so through WebTV, according to Lane.
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