GENEVA (15 December 2020) – UN human rights experts* today expressed concerns about charges brought against a U.S. indigenous leader and human rights defender who will appear in court later this week in connection with peaceful demonstrations against President Donald Trump’s political rally at the iconic Mount Rushmore earlier this year.

“Obviously we cannot pre-judge the outcome of the case against Nicholas Tilsen, but we are seriously concerned about his arrest and the charges brought against him in connection with the exercise of his rights as an indigenous person, particularly the right to assembly,” the experts said. “We call on the U.S. to ensure that Mr. Tilsen’s due process rights are respected during the criminal prosecution and recall the obligation to ensure equal protection of the law without discrimination.”

Tilsen, a human rights defender of the Oglala-Lakȟóta Sioux Nation and president of the indigenous-led NDN Collective, was one of 15 peaceful protesters arrested when a political rally was organised – without the consent of the indigenous peoples concerned – to celebrate U.S. Independence Day in July. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, with its colossal sculptures of former presidents, is located on treaty lands of the Great Sioux Nation.

Tilsen is due in court on 18 December on four felony charges and three misdemeanour charges after he and others blocked a road leading to the rally site. If convicted of all charges, he could face 17 years in prison.

“We are also concerned at allegations of excessive use of force by law enforcement agents against indigenous defenders, and recent reports of surveillance and intimidation by local police officers following the arrests,” the experts said.

Trump’s rally, held without the consent of the Great Sioux Nation, attracted some 7,500 people who did not wear masks or practice social distancing. South Dakota is one of the states worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is absolutely essential that the authorities do more to support and protect indigenous communities that have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the experts said. “We also call on authorities to initiate dialogue with the Great Sioux Nation for the resolution of treaty violations.”


*The experts: Mr. José Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism; Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.