Review of UNHRC Resolutions on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the US (Part II)
The police in the US have routinely and indiscriminately used taser/ stun guns, repeatedly, and disproportionately on African American citizens, during law enforcement, without justification, and in violation of procedures regarding restricted use.
This article is dedicated to the victims of systemic racist violence against people of African descent in the United States of America and other countries; to the memory of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Independent Republic of the Congo, and Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr.) an eminent Civil Rights Leader of the United States of America, both of whom were assassinated; to the martyrs of the Slave trade and Slavery and to the brave souls of Africans who without counting the cost, sacrificed their lives for their National Liberation struggle.
An International Inquiry on ‘Systemic Racist Violence Against People of African American Descent in the United States’ was constituted by three lawyers organizations, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, which published its report end March 2021, released at press conferences held across continents and at Geneva, prior to the report of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 47/21 of 13 July 2021. As one of the 12 Commissioners of this International Inquiry, I am summarizing for readers some of the important findings of the report.
The International Commission of Inquiry concluded among other findings, that ‘Systemic Racist Violence in Policing Against People of African Descent in the United States’ has resulted in a pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and that United States law and police practices do not comply with International Human Rights law and International standards governing the use of force and that the violent acts by police agencies in the United States constitute crimes against humanity.
Whereas the United States of America, led by Eleanor Roosevelt played a critical role in the drafting of the universal declaration of human rights which sets forth two kinds of human rights:
1) civil and political rights
2) economic, social and cultural rights
The United States has ratified three of the most important conventions that protect human rights and fundamental freedoms; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and these Conventions are International treaties which the United States has ratified; consequently, these treaties are a part of the United States Law under the supremacy clause of the US constitution; The United States government, its institutions, and agencies are in violation of all these conventions from the inception.
The Commission was informed by families of victims and attorneys of the United States, in 44 cases, from 33 cities across 20 states of the United States, an exemplar of the cases of systemic racist police violence on people of African descent; that both Republican and Democratic parties are complicit in the system of structural racism. That race has been used to divide citizens and fragment society, not to bridge the vast gap in economic and social opportunity between races. Witnesses deposing stated that racial violence against people of African descent has its roots in the slave trade and slavery and structural racism which developed as a consequence, related to the abysmal social and economic conditions of African Americans. Consequently, racial discrimination and systemic racist police violence against people of African descent are based both on race and class. Systemic racism which is a state policy pervades all spheres; whether in law enforcement, the justice system, in health care, education, housing and employment, and in other related areas. African Americans are not represented in accordance with their population of approximately 13.4 percent, in government, in the administration and its agencies; and in the police force and judicial institutions, at the federal level, and in the States. It has recently been reported that 67 percent of children sentenced by judges to reform and penal institutions in the United States are children of African descent and Latinos.
Non-discrimination is a fundamental principle of International Human Rights Law from which no exemption is allowed, this includes the prohibition of non-discrimination based on race, religion, gender, disability, region, and status. The right to non–discrimination is enshrined in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Article 6 (I) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, mandates that ‘Every human being has the inherent right to life. This shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.’ The Commission of Inquiry found a pattern of killing wherein ”regardless of the context of the encounter during law enforcement, the overriding driver of these killings stemmed from and was reflective of systemic racism.” Excessive violence and killings are the policing norms; including in traffic stops, stop and frisk, while serving warrants, including in ‘No Knock Warrants’; complaints made in domestic interpersonal disputes, cases of mental health episodes when families have requested trained medical assistance, and even in cases of simple traffic violations and speeding, and in failure to respond to unreasonable police commands. Victims have died in jail custody with inadequate explanation, with missing organs. Victim after victim all unarmed, most of whom had committed no offense, some of them are children, pleaded: "Don’t shoot me", "I can’t breathe", "why did you shoot me?". Police vehicles have been rammed into speeding young African American drivers on motorbikes, intentionally killing them; young African American men driving cars have been killed in a hail of bullets just because they were speeding away. The common denominator in all these cases is the unwarranted use of deadly force, which evinced disregard for Black life and the consequences of taking Black life. This is the very essence of the deprivation of life in violation of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which guarantee the rights to life, liberty and security of a person mandate that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention, and that all have a right to protection by the State against bodily harm inflicted by government officials or by any individual group or institutions, and that children cannot be deprived of their life and liberty unlawfully and arbitrarily.
In 2014, the United Nations Committee against Torture addressed racism and violent acts of torture in policing against Black people in the United States expressing concern about numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials “particularly against individuals belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups.”
The Commissioners found a pattern of race-based discrimination in the use of deadly force in violation of the right to freedom from discrimination. “Although Black people account for 13.4 percent of the US population, they are killed by police at over twice the rate of whites.” This finding is consistent with the 2018 report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), titled: ‘Police Violence against Afro-Descendants in the US’, describing “a pattern of excessive force against people of color.” Concluding: ‘racial bias forms the backbone of many problems of police abuses, over-representation of African Americans in arrests and in the prison system. and unequal access to justice, as well as wider issues of racialized poverty and unequal access to economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the US.”
The police in the United States have routinely and indiscriminately used taser/stun guns, repeatedly, and disproportionately on African American citizens, during law enforcement, without justification, and in violation of procedures regarding restricted use; resulting in the instantaneous death of the victims. Police agencies in the United States resorted to compression asphyxia, lateral vascular neck restraint (chokehold), rough rides, and vehicular techniques, the use of which cannot be justified by law enforcement agencies as it leads to death. Specifically, the Commissioners’ findings are that the police use of the so-called restraints resulted in direct killing of victims; as Black victims choked or suffocated, or were crushed over a period of several minutes, often while begging for their lives. This amounts to murder or manslaughter, and inflicting ‘severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental by government actors’. Similarly, the Commissioners find that this pattern of unlawful and excessive use of force against people of African descent, through chokeholds, compression asphyxiation, by either kneeling or standing on victims, and the widespread use of rough rides and the use of vehicles to kill and maim victims, constitute torture in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading punishment. Most victims have died as a direct consequence of these acts. Police officials were aware that the nature of used force was such that it would in the normal course lead to the death of the victim.
Racial profiling has been used in the ‘war on drugs’, which does not target banks, financial institutions, intelligence agencies, and major drug cartels, laundering profits from drugs. Blacks and Black communities have become both the targets and victims of this drug war. African Americans have been indiscriminately killed along with women and children, by police in ‘No –Knock’ drug raids at residences, with police using hand grenades to force open doors of homes and apartments, pursuant to information supplied by unreliable police informers. Police agencies in these raids took no precautions to prevent the loss of lives of innocent men, women, and children. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, 1994, unjustly mandated severe and minimum sentences for minor drug offenses, resulting in a disproportionate number of African Americans imprisoned. This Act enhanced funding to the police force, other law enforcement agencies, and prisons by approximately 17 billion dollars while adding 125,000 new prison cells, establishing a thriving prison industry with the lowest wages. In contrast, addiction to opioids has not been criminalized; it affects mainly Caucasians and is dealt with as a medical addiction, necessitating treatment and rehabilitation, not imprisonment.
There is conclusive evidence that women of African descent and those of transgender are equally vulnerable, unjust victims of the alleged ‘war on drugs’, targeted at random, publicly humiliated by strip search and cavity search; victims of sexual violence by police officials demanding sexual favors from women of African descent from poorer neighborhoods, under threat of being framed up for drug-related, or prostitution charges, among other threats.
In cases of mental health illnesses and related adverse episodes, whereas African American families telephoned the helpline, seeking the assistance of trained medical personnel to deal with the episode, it was the police who responded, using excessive force resulting in killings of the victims, or directly shot at victims who were not armed with lethal weapons. In many cases, timely medical assistance was not given by the police to the victims whom they were grievously and fatally wounded; this would have saved the lives of many victims of police violence.
The Commission also found that United States Law and police practices do not comply with International Human Rights Law and International Standards Governing the Use of Force. A detailed report of the University of Chicago Law School evaluating police policies from 20 largest cities of the United States during 2017 to 2018, titled “Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Law and Standards,” concluded that policies in not a single state of the 50 States of the United States, fully comply with International Human Rights Law and Standards. This report recommended that deep structural reform of the United States Law Enforcement system is necessary, at both at the Federal level and at the level of the States, and that there has been no compliance with International standards for the use of force and firearms. The report exposed that the United States does not maintain a national register of victims killed by police violence. From state to state, procedures vary as to how and if at all data or officer use of force, including the discharge of firearms is collected and published. There is no comprehensive and effective national legal framework that places specific conditions on the use of force, to establish mechanisms of accountability due to failure to set national and federal standards, and due to the decentralized nature of law enforcement in the United States. This is the reality, though the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act statutorily mandated that such a National Register should be maintained at the Federal level and that police agencies funded out of Federal Funds were duty-bound to report the number of persons killed by police use of force. This legal provision has not been enforced by successive governments of the Republican and Democratic parties, violating laws passed by Congress and the Senate.
The Commissioners have given a finding that the law and police practices of the United States and its judicial decisions on the use of force are not in keeping with International Law and standards. The evidence before the Commission in 44 cases conclusively establishes that the police made no effort to investigate, did not question the victim or witnesses at the site, or check with bystanders; did not use normal policing methods to de-escalate; did not escort children to safety away from the scene; and almost instantaneously used indiscriminate and disproportionate force within a few minutes of arrival at the scene, resulting in the deaths of innocent victims, mostly people of African descent. In most cases within a few minutes of arriving on the spot, a minimum of three bullets, and in other cases a hail of bullets were directly fired at the unarmed victims, without any provocation, though the victims were not resisting. The police in none of these cases complied with the following International Principles and standards of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement namely:
I. The 1979 Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials adopted by the United Nations General Assembly
II. The 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, adopted by the Eighth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, to ensure the protection of the right to life, liberty, and security of the person guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
III. The 2014 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur (Christof Heyns), on the extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.
The UN Code of Conduct, the UN Basic Principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials and the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions mandate that law enforcement officials in their use of force and firearms are bound by four mandatory principles:
A. Legality: Governments must ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officers is punished as a criminal offense under the law. In order to consider that the use of lethal force is not arbitrary, it must have sufficient legal basis provided in domestic law that itself complies with International Human Rights and standards.
B. Necessity: The principle of necessity permits the use of force only in response to an imminent and particularized threat as a last resort. The UN Basic Principles explain that “the use of firearms is an extreme measure allowed only when the suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the life of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the offender.”
C. Proportionality: This UN Principle limits the use of lethal force in response to threats to life and serious bodily injury to the officer or others. Proportionality applies to the use of all force by the officer and not just lethal force and is governed by the ‘protect life’ precept.” A life may be taken only to save another life and used only when the subject offers armed resistance or jeopardizes the life of others.
D. Accountability: The principle of accountability requires an effective review process of an external oversight body and issuance of a report in all instances of the use of lethal force. The UN Special Rapporteur describes the primary role of accountability as ensuring that police officers are not above the law when they use force. The UN Code establishes that ‘in every instance when a firearm is discharged, a report must be made promptly to the competent authorities and requires a system of reporting whenever law enforcement officials use firearms in the performance of their duty’. These UN Principles call for an “effective review process with independent administrative or prosecutorial authorities.” The UN Rapporteur goes further and requires the involvement of an external oversight body with necessary powers, resources, independence, and transparency, including community and political support and civil society movement.
The Chicago Law School study confirmed, that the Federal Government of the United States and its 50 states had not complied with any of the standards mandated by the United Nations; and that in 2015 the US police shot and killed more people in the US over a period of 24 days than the UK police did in England and Wales over a period of 24 years; that “by all measures, the system is broken.”
Lastly, the Commission Report finds that the Justice system in the United States has failed the people of African descent. The Civil Rights Act enacted in 1861 to prevent violence by state officials on African Americans and violations of their constitutional and civil rights was ratified only in 1870. This Act was not enforced for almost a hundred years by the Supreme Court of the United States until 1961 during the Civil Rights struggle. This Act was even diluted by the US Supreme Court in 1968, with the Supreme Court inventing the doctrine of ‘qualified immunity’ for police officials, not in the statute, “a deadly tool to let police brutality go unpunished“. Every police officer claiming, “I was threatened” is excused from all liability, without any requirement of objective proof that there was any real threat or that the victim was armed. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sottomayer observed: “This is disturbing…qualified immunity supports ‘a shoot first think later” approach to policing. Police officers raise this defense at any stage of the trial, and in appeals to the Appeal Court and to the Supreme Court, delaying proceedings for 10 years and more.
The seriousness of the situation and the lack of will of the Federal Government and of the States is evidenced by the protests which followed even earlier in 2014, after an unarmed innocent 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in a hail of bullets by the city police while harmlessly walking down a lane in the City of Ferguson when there was no ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The Department of Justice of the Federal Government investigated the incident and submitted a report in March 2015. The Federal Government did not take any action against the City of Ferguson and its police department, apart from filing a suit in a Federal Court on February 10, 2016, against the City of Ferguson which controls the police force, acknowledging in pleadings before the Court that "officers use of force goes unreported …with no compulsory use of force report" and that the: "Defendant intentionally engaged in law enforcement conduct against African Americans in the city of Ferguson, that is discriminatory on the basis of race"; and that "Focus on revenue generation has undermined the fair administration of justice by the Municipal Court", this is a reference to the fact that the court and the police were levying unjustified fines on African Americans, increasing their indebtedness, as a way to increase the revenues of the City as per the direction of the City Council. Ferguson with a population of 67 percent African Americans was a ‘Sundown’ city till 1967, that is people of African descent were restricted to their own residential areas or ghettos after sunset, and could not enter or walk in other areas of the city until the Civil Rights Movement changed this across the United States. Ferguson has a police strength of 54 police officers, with only four Black officers.
The conviction in the George Floyd case took place, only because of an active movement within the United States, and international support received, in particular from the people and governments of Africa. The Continent of Africa is the second-largest continent in terms of land area and population, with immense resources. Africa cannot attain its full potential and dignity without supporting the struggle for equality and reparations for the descendants of the African people, taken in chains from this continent to another shore. This is where it all began, and this is where it must be ended, by the diplomatic and other efforts of the governments of the African Union.