Studying Human Rights in an Indigenous Peoples Law LL.M.

Indigenous Peoples Law LL.M.s are moving towards a broader human rights framework, attracting students from all over the world

Mt Graham, a sacred site for the Apache people but also home to an international telescope project

At the Indigenous Peoples Law program at the University of Oklahoma, students can pursue their LL.M.s in the heart of what was once Native American territory, one of the geographical centers of the legal questions surrounding the rights of native people in the United States.

But at the program, internationalism is the name of the game.

Students at Oklahoma can apply for internships all over the world, in places ranging from the Inter-American Human Rights Court in Costa Rica to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at the United Nations Geneva. They can study comparative indigenous peoples law in Japan and work in human rights organizations in Washington, D.C. 

That’s because the erstwhile division between human rights law and indigenous peoples law no longer exists.  

[See the Top 10 LL.M. Programs for Human Rights Law]

“It’s more and more in common parlance,” says Lindsay Robertson, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the director for the school’s Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy. “We’ve seen more of the international human rights advocacy groups paying attention to indigenous peoples’ issues.”

The University of Oklahoma is home to one of a handful of LL.M. programs around the world that examines indigenous peoples law and policy, including the University of Arizona, the University of British Columbia in Canada, the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and the University of Sydney in Australia. Until 2007, students at those programs dealt with a field of law that was considered separate from human rights law, since human rights law deals with the rights of individuals and indigenous people’s rights deals with the rights of communities. 

But that changed with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007, which Robertson helped negotiate. That declaration urged countries around the world to implement international human rights protections for indigenous peoples. 

Since then, these programs have increasingly focused on indigenous peoples law within a larger framework of human rights. 

“The issues that we talk about of course are issues of fundamental human rights,” says Tanya Mitchell, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, which offers courses on indigenous peoples law within a larger LL.M. program. “We don’t look at them through domestic human rights instruments. We look at international human rights instruments and how they might be useful to solve the issues that the Aboriginal people are facing.” 

Indigenous peoples programs, even ones in the United States, attract students from all over the world, directors say. Robert Williams, faculty co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona, says his school’s LL.M. program draws students from all six continents every year, many of whom are indigenous themselves: First Nation students from Canada or Masei students from Africa, for instance.

Alvaro Baca is one international student who came to America to study indigenous legal issues. Baca was working with the Nicaraguan government as an advocate for indigenous human rights, but wanted to learn more about international and American law pertaining to indigenous people, so he attended the LL.M. program at the University of Oklahoma. Baca is now working for the Indigenous Health Fund at the Department of Health in Washington D.C.

But in the course of learning about indigenous rights in an international human rights context, students also tackle nation-specific issues and conflicts. Students at Oklahoma examine issues such as who has the right to prosecute crimes in American Indian territory; how one negotiates a contract with an American Indian tribe or government; and how tribal rights work vis-à-vis custody of indigenous children. 

“I tell students, it’s like the entirety of the law school curriculum: property rights, contract law, civil procedure, criminal law, international law, because we talk about how to construe treaties between the federal government and tribes,” Robertson says.

“It’s all the other things you learn about at law school, if those things happen in Indian country.”

Williams says he and Professor James Anaya, a leading indigenous rights expert who also teaches at Arizona, keep active dockets working to protect the right of indigenous peoples all over the world; for example, he just worked on a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about whether the Navajo nation had a right to protect a mountain sacred to their culture. 

Like the Oklahoma program, the Arizona LL.M. focuses its courses on a variety of topics pertinent to indigenous law. 

“One of our ideas when we developed this program was not just to focus on our strengths in indigenous law and policy but also to have classes in issues indigenous peoples are particularly concerned with,” Williams says. He says those courses involve mining, oil and gas development and environmental law. 

The University of Sydney’s course is more specific, using historical information to educate students about the problems Aboriginal people often face with Australia’s criminal justice system. 

“As with indigenous people in the US, we have massive overrepresentation of aboriginal people in the criminal justice system,” Mitchell says. “We explore through this course why we have such a massive overrepresentation, and how we might fight that today.”

But despite this program’s narrower focus, Sydney still connects to the larger framework of human rights. 

“These issues are not just applicable to criminal justice. They are applicable more broadly to social justice and human rights,” Mitchell says.

“We don’t use a human rights frame, it’s a historical frame, but it is applicable to human rights.” 

Image: "Mt graham 2008". (cropped) Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikipedia -

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