Will the US face its own human rights scrutiny? The Ferguson grand jury decision not to criminally prosecute a police officer in the shooting of an unarmed young black man has reached the Geneva HQ of the UN Office of Human Rights Chief Prince Zeid, but the consequences will be felt globally and probably with indefinite impact particularly as it relates to the US Government's ability to shape future international discussion on human rights and the violations of more authoritarian regimes.
"Disproportionate Number of Young African Americans Who Die in Encounters With Police"
The new UN Human Rights Chief, Prince Zeid, reacted to the grand jury inaction in the shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri with a more comprehensive and thoughtful statement, more fully linked below:
Without knowing the details of the evidence laid before the Missouri Grand Jury -- which in turn depends on the quality of the investigation into the killing of Michael Brown -- I am not, at this point, able to comment on whether or not the verdict conforms with international human rights law. Nevertheless, I am deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of young African Americans who die in encounters with police officers, as well as the disproportionate number of African Americans in U.S. prisons and the disproportionate number of African Americans on Death Row.
This is not the first occasion. The UN and its various organs have raised alleged US failures with regards to the rule of law and as such may evidence discrimination. The previous UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, questioned whether prosecutors and law enforcement had properly investigated the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida by a self-appointed vigilante member on what may have been racial profiling with deadly consequence. This may have at least in part helped prompt a more thorough investigation and prosecution in Florida courts.
History of Discrimination and Activism:
US civil rights leaders have appealed to the UN over the decades of struggle to counter discrimination in law and practice starting with a UN petition in 1947 by the NAACP. Such human rights leaders have also acted in solidarity with others oppressed and endangered over the decades including when Muhammad Ali came to stand in solidarity with Bosnians facing genocide in 1992.
Prince Zeid took note of this extended history and the US commitments via various treaties and conventions:
It is clear that, at least among some sectors of the population, there is a deep and festering lack of confidence in the fairness of the justice and law enforcement systems. I urge the US authorities to conduct in-depth examinations into how race-related issues are affecting law enforcement and the administration of justice, both at the federal and state levels. Concerns about institutionalized discrimination in the US have repeatedly been raised, by respected national bodies and by UN bodies monitoring the implementation of international human rights treaties, ratified by the US.
Militarized Police Equipped and Empowered to Shoot First and Then...
Prince Zeid also reminded of the very recent shooting by Cleveland police of a 12-year-old boy at a playground who was presumably in possession of a toy replica handgun:
In many countries, where real guns are not so easily available, police tend to view boys playing with replica guns as precisely what they are, rather than as a danger to be neutralized. Any use of firearms by police must be in accordance with the UN's Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Article 9 of the Basic Principles clearly states that 'Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
While some may contend that the Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson may have had some justification in shooting the suspect Michael Brown, the question must linger why 6 shots to kill? Further, does a black person, including a 12-year-old boy become legitimate suspect and target in substantial part by reason of race and/or neighborhood?
Holding America to a Higher Standard, But Isn't That What the US Is All About?
Undoubtedly, even this article will draw a disparate response in a US public now sharply divided along ideology as well as party affiliation and race. Some speak of a lack of family structure or respect for authority within the African-American community, but such rationalization can quickly slip into generalizations and bigotry. Should we also question US society's alleged love for guns? Some may question Prince Zeid's standing on this matter, but he has acted to also bring to light and question various grave violations from China, Russia, to the Middle East and Africa. Prince Zeid is a Jordan national, but he has served the UN in various capacities including an inward looking, unprecedented report on sexual abuse by UN-mandated staff/peacekeepers. Prince Zeid is an Oxford-educated legal expert with whom I had the honor to help shape the Rome Statute and the establishment of the International Criminal Court. He is a long-time US resident married to an American and father to children born in the US who by birth and education are linked to Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, all American kids.
Rather than try to rationalize shootings in Ferguson, Cleveland or Florida by comparing such to the brutality of such regimes as Syria or abuses in China or Russia or Venezuela, as Americans we need to set a higher standard and similarly aspire to be held accountable to such. Global citizens as well as fellow Americans need to demand the tough questions to be asked even if answers may be more elusive. The US Federal authorities and US prosecutors appear inclined to act specifically in the Ferguson case at least to examine whether Michael Brown's civil rights were violated under US law. It is probably appropriate also to question the treatment of journalists and free media by law enforcement in Ferguson. Even many law enforcement officials beyond Ferguson's city lines have placed blame on the overreaction and provocation of its police department estranged from its community. Further, there are questions beyond this one immediate event:
1 - Is there a legacy and still persistent reality of "institutionalized discrimination" in the US particularly among local law enforcement and prosecutors' offices?
2 - Have US police departments become overly militarized, in part empowered and effectively armed by the recent programs that have raised fears of terror and provided surplus military equipment - another risk long ago raised by then US President Eisenhower who warned of the undue influence of the "military industrial complex." (The US has a disproportionate number of persons, white, black, etc. killed in encounters with police.)
3 - Has the U.S. privatized law enforcement and prisons to such a degree that profit becomes a priority, thus raising mistrust between police and minority populations, who are disproportionately likely to end up as disenfranchised prisoners?
The longer-term implications for US influence may be more dire with American leadership and values challenged by accusations of hypocrisy and US soldiers and diplomats viewed with greater suspicion in foreign lands, much as US police within certain cities. Prince Zeid and I are believers in US leadership at the UN, in confronting grave violations of international humanitarian law and promoting the rule of law. American exceptionalism starts at home with judges, prosecutors and law enforcement to be set by example and not by troops in foreign lands. Nonetheless, the US has held itself apart from the International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute. The perception is negatively compounded if US law enforcement appears to be acting beyond the US's own Constitutional standards and perhaps more akin to paramilitary and selective legality when addressing its own citizens in Ferguson or any other US city.
PHOTO: Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey with Muhammad Ali at the UN