In the wake of a night of the latest onslaught by militarized police against unarmed water protectors at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), Amnesty International is sending its fourth delegation out to Standing Rock since August, the international human rights organization announced on Monday November 21.
Videos uploaded to social media from 20 November show officers using tear gas and water cannons against protesters,” wrote Amnesty International USA Executive Director Margaret Huang?in a letter to Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier?of the Morton County, ND, Sheriff’s Department. “Reports indicate that rubber bullets were also used to disperse the crowds from a protest site on a bridge on Highway 1806.”
The water cannons especially were dangerous, as the weather was way below freezing, with wind chill making it feel even colder, Amnesty pointed out, noting also that the measures were used “just two days after MCSD issued a press release instructing protesters camped out in the multiple protest camps to refrain from building permanent structures on Army Corps of Engineers’ land and to seek shelter from the upcoming harsh winter weather.”
Authorities have maintained that they were using the water to put out fires that that had erupted in grasses next to the bridge that the standoff took place at, but Amnesty said this necessity did not extend to spraying the actual people.
According to the Sheriff’s Department, the actions were initiated after his office received reports that protectors were “acting very aggressively toward police,” Kirchmeier told reporters at a press conference on Monday afternoon, “increasing in their aggressiveness and their actions related to this protest.”
He said any actions taken were to ensure the relative safety of all involved, and added that
“The number one thing has still been the safety, the safety for everybody,” he said at the conference, which was broadcast on Facebook. “And some of the actions taken last night were just for that purpose alone.”
He also denied having water cannons, saying that they were fire hoses, while acknowledging that they had been used on people, even in subfreezing temperatures, but that as soon as the officers no longer threatened, it had been downgraded to a “fine mist.”
Amnesty was not convinced.
“While the use of the water cannon may have been necessary to extinguish any fires set to the grasses alongside the bridge, the use of those water cannons against the protesters themselves risks potential injury and hypothermia for the protesters who were sprayed with water in below freezing temperatures,” Huang said in the letter. “Also alarming are videos of the use of tear gas, and reports of rubber bullets used to disperse the crowd of protesters. Any use of force—such as the water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets—by law enforcement officers must be necessary and proportionate to the threat posed.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe also condemned the violence, especially given that it came just a few days after the federal government ordered Energy Transfer Partners and state authorities to stand down during attempts to de-escalate the situation. The federal departments of the Army and Interior also announced that the final easements for tunneling under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe will not be granted until there has been further review.
“The easement to build the unsafe Dakota Access Pipeline has not been granted,” said Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II in a statement. “But under the cover of darkness, North Dakota law enforcement continues to engage in unlawful and dehumanizing tactics to subdue peaceful water protectors with tear gas and water cannons. Live video footage on Facebook this Sunday night (Nov. 20) clearly documents that North Dakota’s law enforcement and government officials have sanctioned aggressive acts in failed attempts to disperse water protectors who have the right to demonstrate against and report on this failing project. It’s time for President Obama to condemn these tactics and this pipeline.”
Indeed, law enforcement’s actions may very well have broken international law, Amnesty USA said in its letter.
“The U.S. government is obligated under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of indigenous people, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” the letter read. “It is the legitimate right of people to peacefully express their opinion. Public assemblies should not be considered as the ‘enemy.’ The command hierarchy must convey a clear message to law enforcement officials that their task is to facilitate and not to restrict a peaceful public assembly. “