GENEVA (5 June 2020) – A group of independent UN human rights experts today called on the United States Government to take decisive action to address systemic racism and racial bias in the country’s criminal justice system by launching independent investigations and ensuring accountability in all cases of excessive use of force by police. They also issued a statement regarding the nationwide protests against racial injustice.
The UN human rights experts made the call after a recent spate of killings of African-Americans involving impunity, particular disregard or depravity toward human life, and the use of public spaces to assert racial control, each characteristic of lynching.
“Exactly 99 years after the massacre in Tulsa, involving the killing of people of African descent and the massive loss of life, destruction of property and loss of wealth on ‘Black Wall Street’, African Americans continue to experience racial terror in state-sponsored and privately organised violence,” the experts said.
“We strongly condemn the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and call for systemic reform and justice. The latest videos to surface showing white men chase, corner, and execute a young man who was out jogging, or showing an officer kneeling with his weight on a man’s neck for eight minutes shock the conscience and evoke the very terror that the lynching regime in the United States was intended to inspire,” the experts said. “Given the track record of impunity for racial violence of this nature in the United States, Black people have good reason to fear for their lives.”
Breonna Taylor, a 25-year-old emergency medical technician was shot in her bed when police raided the wrong house; Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was fatally shot while jogging near his home by three white men who chased and cornered him; and George Floyd, 46, was accused of using counterfeit currency in a store and died in the street while a white officer knelt on his neck and three others participated and observed. In the case of Mr. Floyd, police prevented witnesses, including an emergency medical technician present at the scene, from rendering any medical assistance, even after Mr. Floyd lost consciousness.
“The origin story of policing in the United States of America starts with slave patrols and social control, where human property of enslavers was ‘protected’ with violence and impunity against people of African descent. In the US, this legacy of racial terror remains evident in modern-day policing,” the experts said.
“For example, the killers of Ahmaud Arbery formed up, gave elaborate chase, cornered him and did not allow Ahmaud to escape the neighbourhood, rammed him with their truck, eventually shot him three times. Then, according to testimony, one of them stood over his dead body, and called him a “f***ing n***er.” The last few moments of Ahmaud’s life involved pursuit by a lynching party identical to the lynching parties of the Jim Crow era.”
The experts also raised concerns about the police response to demonstrations in several US cities, termed by some the “Fed Up-rising,” that have been marked by violence, arbitrary arrest, militarisation and the detention of thousands of protesters. Reporters of colour have been targeted and detained, and some journalists have faced violence and harassment.
“Statements from the US Government inciting and threatening violence against protesters stand in stark contrast to calls for leniency and understanding which the Government had issued in the wake of largely white protests against COVID-19 restrictions on services like barbershops, salons, and spas,” the experts said.
The experts also noted that the United States’ 1 June 2020 statement to deploy military force against protesters nationwide involves legal instruments used primarily against people of African descent, but rarely in their defence in similar situations. The nearly simultaneous tear gassing of peaceful protesters not involved in unlawful behavior presents significant rule of law concerns, they said.
The UN experts reiterated the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent’s observation and recommendations made in its US country report in 2016, that killings of unarmed African-Americans by police were “only the tip of the iceberg in what is a pervasive racial bias in the justice system”.
The Government should implement outstanding recommendations in the report relating to policing and criminal justice, including implementing the 2015 recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which highlighted the need for respect for civil and human rights and freedom from racial and ethnic bias. The experts also recommended that the Government of the United States revisit and cease policies facilitating qualified immunity, provision of military equipment to, and military-type training of police, no-knock warrants and use of non-uniformed police in citizen interactions. Finally, civilian oversight boards, mandated body worn camera use, de-escalation training, and independent review of all extrajudicial police killings would enhance both transparency and accountability.
The recent incidents are set in the context of COVID-19, which has heavily and disproportionately impacted people of African descent who faced greater risk and lesser ability to quarantine. These risks, the experts said, have been exacerbated by increased abuse of police authority, over-policing, and excessive force in the enforcement of physical distancing restrictions.
The experts have previously raised these issues and conveyed their concerns in writing to the Government of the United States of America.
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*The experts: Ahmed Reid (Chair), Dominique Day, Sabelo Gumedze, Michal Balcerzak, and Ricardo A. Sunga III, Working Group of experts on people of African descent; Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez (Chair), Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Leigh Toomey (Vice-Chair), Sètondji Adjovi, and Seong-Phil Hong, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; Chris Kwaja (Chair), Jelena Aparac, Lilian Bobea, Sorcha MacLeod, and Saeed Mokbil, Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination; Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes; Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues ; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association and Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Nourredine Ami (Chair), Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.