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As tensions escalate at the site of a disputed pipeline close to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) has sent a delegation of human rights observers to monitor the response of law enforcement to protests by Indigenous communities.

AIUSA also has sent a letter to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department expressing concern about the degree of force used against the protests. The organization will also call on the Department of Justice to investigate police practices.

Arrests of protesters, who call themselves water protectors, have increased in recent weeks and law enforcement has employed a more militarized response to protests and encampments near the construction site of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The local Indigenous communities say the pipeline endangers their water supply and desecrates sacred land. This week, arrests have occurred at a camp that was recently established on federally-recognized private land near the construction site.

AIUSA sent a delegation of observers to the area in August and has stayed in contact both with the Indigenous community and those policing the protests since then. Letters had previously been sent to the North Dakota Highway Patrol and the Morton County Sheriff’s office calling for law enforcement officers to respect international human rights standards on the policing of protests. 

“Our observers are here to ensure that everyone’s human rights are protected,” said Eric Ferrero, director of communications for AIUSA. “We’re deeply concerned about what we heard during our previous visit to Standing Rock and what has been reported to us since.”

In some instances, police have responded to protesters with pepper spray and bean bags, and in one instance, private security staff used guard dogs. Those recently arrested have reported being strip searched and forced to pay bail for minor offenses. Members of the media and legal observers have also been arrested or charged with minor offenses.

“People here just want to stand up for the rights of Indigenous people and protect their natural resources. These people should not be treated like the enemy,” said Ferrero “Police must keep the peace using minimal force appropriate to the situation. Confronting men, women, and children while outfitted in gear more suited for the battlefield is a disproportionate response.”

Under International law and standards, arrests should not be used to intimidate or prevent people from participating in peaceful assembly. If individuals are arrested, they should not be restrained for prolonged periods of time, and should be treated humanely. Invasive searches should only be carried out if absolutely necessary and not in a manner that could be considered cruel or humiliating treatment. Authorities are encouraged to develop and use appropriate alternatives to invasive searches.

Amnesty International has a history of monitoring protests and police conduct to ensure adherence to international human rights standards. In addition to North Dakota, AIUSA has deployed delegations of observers to Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, MD, to monitor protests in the wake of police killings, as well as to Cleveland and Philadelphia to monitor the protests outside the Republican and Democratic National Conventions earlier this year.