UN Experts Concerned over Outcome of Michael Brown and Eric Garner Cases

ferguson_021_081414GENEVA (5 December 2014) – A group of United Nations experts on minority issues, racism, people of African descent, the right to peaceful assembly, and on extrajudicial executions have expressed “legitimate concerns” over the decision not to bring to trial the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the United States.

The human rights experts voiced deep concern over the broader pattern reflected in this week’s decision of the Staten Island grand jury not to bring to trial the case of Eric Garner, an African-American who died after a police officer put him in a chokehold. They also recalled a similar decision of St. Louis County grand jury in the case of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager shot and killed by a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.

The decisions have sparked a renewed wave of demonstrations across the US against what is considered by many in the African-American community to be unlawful killings and further examples of lethal force being disproportionately used against young African-American men.

The UN experts welcomed possible measures to address consistent allegations of inappropriate policing practices in the country, and to build trust between communities and the police proposed by President Barak Obama. However, they highlighted that “they should also recognize the need for training and to ensure that minorities are recruited into the police in which they are under-represented.”

“I am concerned by the grand juries’ decisions and the apparent conflicting evidence that exists relating to both incidents,” the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák, said.

“A trial process would ensure that all the evidence is considered in detail and that justice can take its proper course,” Ms. Izsák stated. “The decisions leave many with legitimate concerns relating to a pattern of impunity when the victims of excessive use of force come from African-American or other minority communities.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mutuma Ruteere, drew attention to continuing evidence of discriminatory practices including racial profiling by police officers targeting African Americans as specific challenges requiring urgent action.

“There are numerous complaints stating that African Americans are disproportionally affected by such practices of racial profiling and the use of disproportionate and often lethal force,” Mr. Ruteere said. “African-Americans are 10 times more likely to be pulled over by police officers for minor traffic offences than white persons. Such practices must be eradicated.”

The human rights expert also pointed out the continuing economic disparity between African-Americans and the rest of their fellow citizens, noting that “the unemployment rate of African-Americans is twice higher than the rest of the population.”

“The Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s cases have added to our existing concerns over the longstanding prevalence of racial discrimination faced by African-Americans, particularly in relation to access to justice and discriminatory police practices,” said human rights expert Mireille Fanon Mendes France, who currently heads the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

“We call for finalization without undue delay of the on-going investigations into the cases, the delivery of justice and reparations for the victims concerned,” she said. “We urge 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.”

In the midst of renewed street demonstrations, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, urged marchers to exercise their right to protest peacefully and without violence.

“We do understand that many people feel angry and frustrated by what they regard as an unjust decision,” the human rights expert said. “However, it is essential to act in accordance to the law and not allow anger to fuel more violence.”

“Similarly, I urge the police to facilitate the right of protestors to demonstrate peacefully and to refrain from the use of excessive force against individuals exercising their freedom to peacefully protest,” Mr.Kiai stressed.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, stressed that international law allows the use of lethal force only where it is absolutely necessary to protect life.

“The laws of many of the States in the US are much more permissive, creating an atmosphere where there are not enough constraints on the use of force. A comprehensive review of the system is needed – the enabling laws, the kinds of weapons the police use, the training they receive, and the use of technology such as on-body cameras to ensure accountability,” Mr. Heyns said.

The UN human rights experts 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, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council 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.

By: United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (The Advocates for Human Rights holds special consultative status with the United Nations.)

Learn more, log on to:

Minority issues: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Minorities/IExpert/Pages/IEminorityissuesIndex.aspx

Racial discrimination: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Racism/SRRacism/Pages/IndexSRRacism.aspx

People of African descent: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Racism/WGAfricanDescent/Pages/WGEPADIndex.aspx

Peaceful assembly: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/AssemblyAssociation/Pages/SRFreedomAssemblyAssociationIndex.aspx

Summary executions: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Executions/Pages/SRExecutionsIndex.aspx

UN Human Rights, country page – United States of America: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/USIndex.aspx

“I Can’t Breathe”

Eric Garner

Eric Garner’s final words:

“Get away [garbled] for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. Why would you…? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me [garbled] Selling cigarettes. I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me. [garbled] I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” 

Listen to the audio.

Ferguson: “Let’s Make a Difference”

ferguson_021_081414The freedom to enjoy human rights without discrimination is one of the most fundamental principles of human rights law. Every human being is equal in dignity and worth and has the right not to be discriminated against. Racism, which limits peoples’ access to rights based on their identity, attacks the very concept of human rights.

However, as evidenced by the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent violent policing of protestors and the ultimate failure to indict Darren Wilson, racism in the United States is a prevalent problem. The events also bring to light additional human rights issues concerning the right to life, the use of lethal force by law enforcement, freedom from cruel or degrading treatment or punishment by government authorities, and the right to freedom of expression and assembly.

These are not isolated incidents. Rather they are the ramifications of a systemic racial bias among law enforcement officials, and they evidence a lack of proper implementation of rules and regulations governing the use of force and the inadequacy of training of law enforcement officials.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is the international human rights treaty that comprehensively addresses the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination and supports positive actions to promote racial justice and equality. The United States ratified CERD in 1994. As a party to the treaty, the United States is obligated to condemn racial discrimination and pursue a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms.

This includes safeguarding human rights in the political, economic, social, cultural, and other fields of public life so that human rights are ensured to everyone without racial discrimination.

Clearly, the United States has a long way to go in fulfilling its obligations to CERD, and issues of racial profiling and police brutality are, unfortunately, only one of the many issues faced by people of color in this country. As one CERD committee member recently stated, “Racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and housing.”

These problems did not develop in a vacuum; they result from our nation’s history of racism, slavery, and white supremacy.  Even two generations after the end of legal discrimination, systematic oppression continues to marginalize people of color. Vast racial disparities still exist in wealth and income, education, employment, poverty, incarceration rates, and health.

Racism is part of the legacy of the United States, but it does not need to be a permanent state of affairs. It can be examined, analyzed, and dismantled, both individually and as a society.  As the family of Michael Brown has  stated, “We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen. Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.”

By: Emily Farell, program associate with The Advocates for Human Rights

Further resources:
Human Rights Education Newsletter: Racial Discrimination in the United States

Amnesty International Report: On The Streets Of America: Human Rights Abuses In Ferguson

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

CERD Shadow Reports

US Report to CERD

Inequality and Racism Resources