Closing the Accountability Gap for Indian Tribes

The recognition of the right of Indian tribes to self-determination in federal and international law generates strong protections for tribal autonomy, allowing tribes to exercise extensive governmental powers. But federal and international law also combine to create an accountability gap for tribal human rights violations—that is, a space in which victims lack access to a remedy and tribes are able to act with impunity. Just as U.S. states and municipalities can use their governmental powers to both protect and violate human rights, so too can tribes. But when a tribe fails to provide a remedy for its violation, a victim may be unable to access a remedy under federal law due to federal deference to tribal sovereignty. A victim has no recourse directly against the tribe under international law, and tribal self-determination limits the ability of a victim to bring a complaint against the U.S under international law. 

This Note proposes filling the accountability gap by recognizing that the right of Indian tribes to self-determination under international law contains a duty to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Rather than looking to the United States to provide recourse, which would infringe on tribal self-determination, this proposal recognizes that when a tribe violates a human right, the tribe is breaching international law and owes the victim a remedy. This Note argues that recognition of such a duty would benefit tribes by legitimizing tribal self-determination and governance and closes by discussing how the duty would be implemented in practice.

The Relational Contingency of Rights

In this Article, we demonstrate, contrary to conventional wisdom, that all rights are relationally contingent. Our main thesis is that rights afford their holders meaningful protection only against challengers who face higher litigation costs than the rightholder. Contrariwise, challengers who can litigate more cheaply than a rightholder can force the rightholder to forfeit the right and thereby render the right ineffective. Consequently, in the real world, rights avail only against certain challengers but not others. This result is robust and pervasive. Furthermore, it obtains irrespectively of how rights and other legal entitlements are defined by the legislator or construed by courts. We also show that in many legal areas, such as property law, intellectual property law, insurance law, and criminal law, rightsholders systematically suffer from cost disadvantage vis-à-vis certain categories of challengers who can render their rights virtually unrealizable. After uncovering these problems and analyzing their implications for prevalent understandings of rights in the jurisprudential and economic literatures, we identify mechanisms that our legal system ought to adopt to fend off the threat to the integrity of its rights-based design and bolster the protection afforded by rights. These mechanisms include heightened court fees, fee shifting, punitive damages, and various procedural safeguards. We submit that under the appropriate design, they can go a long way toward countering the strategic abuse of rights.