Finding it difficult to wrap your head around calls to #DefundPolice? Start with human rights.

“Say My Name”, created by attorney Laurie Stoffer Steiger, in memory of George Floyd and others who have lost their lives to racist and other violence.

The killing of #GeorgeFloyd has propelled calls to #DefundPolice to the headlines. It can be difficult to get beyond the hashtag, but if you’re looking for a human rights approach to public safety, the police abolition movement makes sense.

At its heart, the call to #DefundPolice operationalizes a human rights approach to public safety. It’s grounded in a human rights approach that recognizes that rights are interconnected, interdependent, and indivisible. That accountability is essential. That discrimination is wrong. That housing, health, and food need to be included in public safety policy and funding. #DefundPolice means using policy and budgets to ensure human rights. It refocuses priorities on root causes without abandoning accountability and the rule of law. 

#DefundPolice is a conversation that has been underway for years. (For those of you who love a long read, check out this law review article on police abolition.)  There are no definitive, quick-fix, or one-size-fits-all answers, but there are sound and practical public policy demands driven by the communities that live with police violence every day, such MPD150 and Campaign Zero.

The bedrock of human rights is the right to live with human dignity. Accountability for human rights violations by the government or abuses by private actors top the list of the government’s human rights obligations. But, we have the right to food, shelter, and health just as much as we have the right to due process.  And, the human rights approach sees the interconnectivity of these rights—we can have no public safety without protection of all rights; and, by protecting rights to basic needs, we reduce opportunities for other abuses. 

Let’s be clear: No one is suggesting the end of the rule of law. Human rights law demands that everyone is subject to the law and no one is above it. If someone assaults you, you want them to be caught, held to account, and stopped from doing it again. Indeed, #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd includes a demand for accountability for his extrajudicial execution.

Interpreting #DefundPolice as an invitation to anarchy misconstrues the demand and plays into centuries of racist tropes depicting people of color as a threat to white peoples’ person and property. Minnesotans heard that dog whistle when the house majority leader demanded the governor apologize “to the moms out in the suburbs scared to death about what’s happening all around them.”

Human rights standards do not equate “safety” with “policing.” Human rights standards recognize that armed state actors have the power to inflict violence, repression, and harm if flawed in the original design and allowed to operate with impunity. One of the key UN special procedures, the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, has operated since 1982 for precisely this reason.

A human rights approach demands that we consider the impact of any laws, policies, and systems on all people. It demands that those who are historically and currently marginalized from those systems play a central role in policy development so that their concerns are not drowned out by those who have historically held more power or influence. It demands recognition of the interconnected, interdependent nature of all human rights, not the selective cherry-picking that privileges some rights for some people over others.

In other words, human rights demand that people (who we might refer to as members of the “public”) be housed, fed, and healthy (what we might call “safe”).

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

Please comment to join our community of human rights advocates. The Advocates for Human Rights produces this blog in a spirit of thoughtful communication. Comments are open, but are moderated.

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