Human Rights Bodies Respond to Killings by Police in U.S.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviews the United States
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviews the United States

CERD reviews the United States
Credit: UN Treaty Body Webcast

Recent decisions by two grand juries in the United States not to indict white police officers for the shooting deaths of two black men, Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri, have sparked “legitimate concerns” about American police practices among United Nations human rights experts. [UN News Centre] The deaths of Garner and Brown in separate incidents have incited protests across the U.S. against a perceived pattern of police brutality targeting minorities. [UN News Centre]

A number of independent United Nations human rights experts expressed concerns with the failure to pursue criminal charges against these police officers and urged restraint in authorities’ response to protests. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also weighed in, raising questions about public confidence in the American criminal justice system. And, in reviews completed over the last year, three UN human rights treaty bodies specifically addressed issues related to racial discrimination, policing, and excessive force in the United States.

While the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights did not issue a response to the grand jury decisions, it did state – back in August – that it “consider[ed] that the killings of Mr. Garner and Mr. Brown represent the continuation of a disturbing pattern of excessive force on the part of police officers towards African-Americans and other persons of color.” [IACHR Press Release] The Commission also emphasized the government’s obligation to “promptly, thoroughly and independently” investigate such killings, and urged authorities to “adopt a moderate response to protesters.”

UN Human Rights Experts

UN experts “welcomed” the measures proposed by President Barack Obama to respond to allegations of police discrimination and restore trust between minority communities and police forces. At the same time, the experts emphasized the “need for training and to ensure that minorities are recruited into the police in which they are underrepresented.” [OHCHR Press Release]

Rita Iszák, the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, noted concerns with grand jury decisions not to prosecute, especially in light of the “apparent conflicting evidence relating to both incidents.” [OHCHR Press Release]

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mutuma Ruteere, linked the grand jury decisions to other practices indicating a pattern of police discrimination, including racial profiling, the “disproportionate and often lethal force” used against minorities, and the fact that “African-Americans are 10 times more likely to be pulled over by police officers for minor traffic offences than white persons.” [OHCHR Press Release]

Mireille Fanon Mendes France, the current head of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, similarly tied the recent grand jury decisions to longstanding concerns with the historic discrimination faced by African Americans, especially with regard to “access to justice and discriminatory police practices.” [OHCHR Press Release]

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, emphasized that, under international law, lethal force may only be used when strictly necessary to protect life. However, laws in many of the states in the U.S. afford police substantial discretion and thus provide insufficient constraint on the use of force. [OHCHR Press Release] Heyns stressed the need for a “comprehensive review” of police policies and training, as well as the use of on-body cameras and similar technologies to ensure that lethal force is only ever used as a last resort. [OHCHR Press Release]

In response to the grand jury decisions, the head of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Mireille Fanon Mendes France, called on the U.S. to undertake a “comprehensive examination of all laws that could have discriminatory impact on African-Americans to ensure that such laws are in full compliance with the country’s international legal obligations and relevant international standards.” [UN News Centre]

In the same vein, the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Iszák, emphasized that the failure to indict white officers for the deaths of black suspects raised “legitimate concerns relating to a pattern of impunity.” [UN News Centre]

Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association, called on protestors and demonstrators in the U.S. to remain peaceful and non-violent. He also called on police to refrain from resorting to excessive force against protestors. [OHCHR Press Release]

To learn more about the UN’s independent human rights experts, visit the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council page on the IJRC Online Resource Hub.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called on all protestors to remain non-violent and peaceful in their demonstrations, in keeping with the express wishes of Michael Brown’s parents and the rule of law. [OHCHR Press Release]

The High Commissioner stressed that, without knowing the details of the grand jury proceedings or investigation into Michael Brown’s killing, he was unable to determine whether the outcome complied with international human rights law. Nevertheless, he expressed deep concern over the “disproportionate number of African Americans who die in encounters with police officers, as well as the disproportionate number of African Americans on Death Row.” [OHCHR Press Release]

The High Commissioner noted the “deep and festering lack of confidence” in the American judicial and law enforcement systems, and urged the authorities to undertake a searching examination of race-related issues in the criminal justice system at both the federal and state levels. [OHCHR Press Release]

The High Commissioner also highlighted how easy access to guns in the United States can lead to impremissble use of force by police officers – citing the recent death of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH, who was shot to death by a police officer because he was holding a toy gun. [OHCHR Press Release] The High Commissioner noted that in countries with greater gun controls, police tend to view children playing with toy guns as precisely that. [OHCHR Press Release]

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

In its recent review of the United States’ implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) focused on issues brought to its attention concerning policing and the use of force. See Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding observations on the combined seventh to ninth periodic reports of the United States of America, UN Doc. CERD/C/USA/CO/7-9, 22 Sept. 2014.

CERD reiterated concerns regarding “the brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against members of racial and ethnic minorities, including against unarmed individuals, which has a disparate impact on African Americans and undocumented migrants.” Id. at para. 17.

The Committee further noted the ongoing impunity for such brutality and excessive force, in spite of steps by the U.S. to prosecute law enforcement officials for misconduct. Id. at para. 17.

In this regard, CERD urged the U.S. to take four steps:

  1. To promptly and effectively investigate every allegation of excessive force by law enforcement officers, to prosecute and punish the perpetrators, to reopen investigations into excessive force when new evidence becomes available and to provide adequate compensation to victims and their families.
  2. To “intensify” efforts to prevent the use of excessive force by law enforcement agents through ensuring compliance with the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, and to guarantee the application and enforcement of the new CBP directive.
  3. To improve reporting on the excessive use of force, and to enhance the oversight and accountability for excessive use of force.
  4. To provide “detailed information” on the investigations into allegations of excessive force by law enforcement, and any disciplinary or prosecutorial action taken against the perpetrators as a result of such investigations.

Id. at para. 17(a)-(d).

CERD also expressed concerns with racial profiling in the U.S. Id. at para. 8. In this regard, CERD called on the U.S. to strengthen its efforts to end racial profiling by law enforcement officials by: (1) adopting legsiation that expressly prohibits racial profiling; (2) revising policies that permit racial profiling; (3) terminate immigration programs and policies that indirectly lead to racial profiling; and (4) promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate all allegations of profiling, holding those responsinle accountable, and ensure effective remedies, “ including guarantees of non-repetition.” Id. at para. 8.

For additional information, visit the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination page of the IJRC Online Resource Hub.

Human Rights Committee

In its recent review of the United States government’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee likewise commented on the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, noting ongoing concerns with the high number of fatal shootings by police, as well as reports alleging excessive use of force – including the “deadly use of tasers” – by police officers, all of which “has a disparate impact on African Americans.” See Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the fourth periodic report of the United States of America, UN Doc. CCPR/C/USA/CO/4, 23 April 2014, para. 11. The Committee called on the U.S. to:

  1. enhance efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement and promote compliance with the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials;
  2. ensure that the new CBP directive on the use of deadly force is adhered to; and
  3. improve reporting on the excessive use of force by law enforcement authorities, and to investigate, prosecute and punish offenders; reopen investigations when new evidence becomes available, and provide adequate compensation to victims and their families.

Id. at para. 11(a)-(c).

The Human Rights Committee also discussed racial profiling in the US. In this regard, it “welcomed” plans for the reform of New York City’s controversial “stop and frisk” program, but cited ongoing concerns with racial profiling and surveillance by law enforcement. Id. at para. 7. In this regard, the Committee emphasized the necessity to “eliminate” racial profiling at all levels of law enforcement, and called for continued training on cultural awareness and the inadmissibility of profiling. Id.

For additional information on this treaty body’s work, visit the Human Rights Committee page of the IJRC Online Resource Hub.

Committee Against Torture

In its review of the U.S. government’s implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment – completed last month – the Committee Against Torture (CAT) cited concerns with “numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, in particular against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and LGBTI individuals.” The Committee also noted the use of racial profiling by police and the “growing militarization of policing activities.” Committee Against Torture, Concluding observations on the third to fifth periodic reports of United States of America, Advanced Unedited Version, UN Doc. CAT/C/USA/CO/3-5, para. 26.

The CAT explicitly addressed allegations of harassment and the excessive use of force by Chicago Police against African American and Latino youth. Id. at para. 26 In this regard, the CAT noted a federal investigation into acts of torture allegedly committed by Commander Jon Burge and those under his supervision in the Chicago Police Department (CPD) between 1972 and 1991. The CAT highlighted concerns with the investigation, which failed to produce sufficient evidence to prove beyond an reasonable doubt that constitutional violations had been committed, and that none of the police officers involved had been committed for acts of torture. The vast majority of those tortured by the CPD, mostly African Americans, had received no compensation for their suffering. Id.

The CAT called on the U.S. to:

  1. ensure, prompt, effective and impartial independent investigations with “no institutional or hierarchical connection” to the alleged perpetrators of every instance of police brutality;
  2. prosecute those suspected of torture or ill-treatment, and appropriately punish those found guilty;
  3. provide redress and rehabilitation for victims; and
  4. support the passage of the Ordinance entitled Reparations for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors in order to provide redress to survivors of CPD torture.

Id. at para. 26

The CAT also specifically addressed “numerous, consistent” reports of the use of tasers against unarmed individuals for resisting arrest or failing to instantly comply with police commands, fleeing minor crimes, and minors. The torture committee emphasized that it is “appalled” at the number of deaths resulting from the use of tasers by police, and noted the need for “more stringent regulations” of the use of such devices. Id. at para. 27.

Specifically, the CAT recommended that the U.S. ensure that tasers and similar weapons are only used “in extreme and limited situations where there is a real and immediate threat to life or fisk of serious injury.” Id. at para. 27. The treaty body also recommended that the U.S. revise the regulations governing the use of these weapons to establish a “high threshold for their use” and to “expressly prohibit their use on children and pregnant women.” Additionally, the use of such weapons should be governed by the principles of necessity and proportionality, and should not be used in prisons or other detention centers. Id. at para. 27

The CAT likewise expressed “deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals,” and noted the trouble victims and families have with holding police accountable for abuses. Id. at para. 26

Like the Human Rights Committee and CERD, the CAT highlighted the lack of data available on allegations of police brutality and the outcome of investigations into such allegations. Id. at para. 26

The CAT declined to convey its reaction to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. [NY Times] Brown’s parents had travelled to Geneva to testify before the Committee, in an effort to inform the global community about the prevalence of racial discrimination and the excessive use of force by law enforcement in the U.S. [CNN] Brown’s mother emphasized that her family needs answers and action, and that she was bringing her story to the UN so that the UN can expose U.S. police activities to the global community. [CNN]

For additional information on this treaty body, visit the Committee Against Torture page of the IJRC Online Resource Hub.