Web Only / Features » December 10, 2014
On International Human Rights Day, Consider the U.N.‘s Statements on the American Justice System
We usually think of “human rights abuses” as something that occur abroad. But recent U.N. proceedings have strong words for the U.S.’s domestic and international activities.
It is well past time for U.S. and local governmental officials to heed the recent findings of the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the urgings of the High Commissioner.
Today is International Human Rights Day, first declared in 1950 by the United Nations in order to “bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” It’s a fitting day, then, to consider the recent proceedings before and findings of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, (CAT). Released before the gruesome Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices yesterday, the committee had strong words for the U.S.’s domestic and international human rights record.
In mid-November, representatives of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project and We Charge Genocide, the parents of Michael Brown, and other activists journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland and presented evidence concerning law enforcement violence and torture in Chicago, across the United States, and at Guantanamo, to the experts of the CAT. When representatives of the United States Government presented its defense to the documented charges, many in the audience , led by the We Charge Genocide delegation, stood and unfurled signs in silent protest. On November 20th, the CAT issued its findings on these and other related human rights issues.
With regard to the ongoing Chicago police torture scandal, which the CAT first cited in its 2006 findings, and the ongoing police violence against African Americans and Latinos in Chicago, the CAT first addressed the need for specific legislation making torture by law enforcement officers a federal crime, referencing the Law Enforcement Torture Prevention Act, which has been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Danny Davis on two separate occasions and would make police torture a federal crime without a statute of limitations.
In the report, the Committee addresses the Chicago police torture scandal, stating that
with regard to the acts of torture committed by CPD Commander Jon Burge and others under his command between 1972 and 1991, the Committee notes … that a federal rights investigation did not develop sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that prosecutable constitutional violations occurred. However, … despite the fact that Jon Burge was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, no Chicago police officer has been convicted for these acts of torture for reasons including the statute of limitations expiring. … [S]everal victims were ultimately exonerated of the underlying crimes, [but] the vast majority of those tortured—most of them African Americans—have received no compensation for the extensive injuries suffered.
The Committee renewed its call for torture prosecutions and gave a strong endorsement to the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project’s campaign for financial, psychological, medical, and educational reparations for the survivors of Burge-related torture by calling on the government to provide for the “redress for CPD torture survivors by supporting the passage of the Ordinance entitled Reparations for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors.” Reparations such as those sought in Chicago are called for by General Comment 3 to Article 14 of the UN Convention Against Torture.
The CAT also stated, in response to a report presented by We Charge Genocide, that it was “particularly concerned at the reported current police violence in Chicago, especially against African-American and Latino young people who are allegedly being consistently profiled, harassed and subjected to excessive force by Chicago Police,” and with the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.”
Use of Tasers
The Committee also examined law enforcement’s use of Tasers on unarmed citizens, stating that it was “appalled at the number of reported deaths after the use of electrical discharge weapons” and singling out the recent cases of Israel “Reefa” Hernández Llach in Miami Beach, Florida, and Dominique Franklin Jr. in Sauk Village, Illinois.
It also urged that tasers be used “exclusively in extreme and limited situations —where there is a real and immediate threat to life or risk of serious injury—as a substitute for lethal weapons and by trained law enforcement personnel only,” that tasers be prohibited from use on children and pregnant women, that they be subjected to “principles of necessity and proportionality” and that they be “inadmissible in the equipment of custodial staff in prisons or any other place of deprivation of liberty.” The Committee urged the U.S. “to provide more stringent instructions to law enforcement personnel entitled to use electric discharge weapons, and to strictly monitor and supervise their use through mandatory reporting and review of each use.”
Prisons, the Death Penalty, and Juvenile Justice
The CAT also addressed the death penalty and numerous systemic human rights violations within the prisons and jails of the U.S. adult and juvenile justice system. The Committee condemned the torturous suffering that has accompanied numerous executions across the country, referencing the use of untested lethal drug cocktails, and called for a moratorium on the death penalty and commutation of death sentences “with a view to abolish” the measure.
It also condemned sexual and other related prison violence, particularly against LGBTQ and mentally disturbed prisoners, the proliferation of deaths in custody, the shackling of pregnant prisoners, and the use super max prisons and other forms of extended solitary confinement. The committee recommended the prohibition of both solitary confinement for juveniles and the placement of juveniles in adult prisons, the abolishment of life without parole sentences for juveniles regardless of the crime for which they were convicted, and argued for a commitment to seeking alternatives to prison.
Guantanamo and the Use of Torture
Writing before the release of the government report on C.I.A. detention and interrogation after 9/11, the Committee expressed “its deep concern” that the U.S. government “continues to hold a number of individuals without charge at Guantanamo Bay detention facilities” as “enemy belligerents” whom the U.S. claims it is “entitled to hold” “until the end of the hostilities.” The CAT then reiterated that, in its view, this “indefinite detention constitutes … a violation” of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. It cited as evidence that out of the 148 men still held at Guantanamo, only 33 have been designated for potential prosecution, in violation of international fair trial standards, and further articulated its concern that “federal courts have rejected a significant number of habeas corpus petitions.”
Regarding the conditions at Guantanamo, the Committee “remained concerned about the secrecy surrounding conditions of confinement,” and noted “the studies received on the cumulative effect that the conditions of detention and treatment in Guantanamo have had on the psychological health of detainees.” It cited the nine deaths in Guantanamo during the period under its review, including seven suicides, repeated suicide attempts and the “recurrent mass hunger strike protests by detainees over indefinite detention and conditions of detention.” Additionally, it condemned the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes, sometimes reportedly administered in an unnecessarily brutal and painful manner, which “constitutes ill-treatment in violation of the Convention.”
The Committee called on the U.S. government to
- Cease the use of indefinite detention without charge or trial for individuals suspected of terrorism-related activities;
- Ensure that detainees held at Guantanamo who are designated for potential prosecution be charged and tried in ordinary federal civilian courts;
- Immediately release any other detainees who are not to be charged or tried;
- Provide access to detainees and their counsel to all evidence used to justify the detention;
- Investigate allegations of detainee abuse, including torture and ill-treatment, appropriately prosecute those responsible, and ensure effective redress for victims;
- Improve the detainees’ situation so as to persuade them to cease the hunger strike;
- Put an end to force-feeding of detainees on hunger strikes as long as they are able to make informed decisions;
- Invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Guantanamo Bay detention facilities, with full access to the detainees, including private meetings with them, in conformity with the terms of reference for fact-finding missions by the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council;
- Declassify torture evidence, in particular Guantanamo detainees’ accounts of torture; and
- Ensure that all victims of torture are able to access a remedy and obtain redress, wherever acts of torture occurred and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim.
And, most significantly, the CAT reiterated its earlier recommendation that the U.S. “should close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.”
The Committee also decried the lack of prosecutions for, and transparency about, numerous apparent criminal acts, including homicides and enforced disappearances, committed by C.I.A. operatives, the U.S. military, and other U.S. agents at foreign locations including in Afghanistan, and as part of the U.S. Government’s rendition program—a call that was echoed today by U.N. officials in the wake of the C.I.A. torture report. It condemned the continued use of sleep and sensory deprivation, including blindfolds, goggles, and earmuffs, as interrogation techniques. It also called for an absolute bar to torture in all forms and circumstances, including where terrorism is alleged, and for the “declassification and prompt public release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the C.I.A.’s secret detention and interrogation program with minimal redactions.”
The Michael Brown case
Despite a compelling closed-door presentation by Michael Brown’s parents, the C.A.T. did not expressly mention the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in its report. When queried about this omission, a Committee member stated that the C.A.T. “has to respect the decision” of authorities not to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson.
However, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, in response to the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision, issued a statement which articulated a “deep concern” about U.S. racism and its connection to law enforcement violence:
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. 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 U.S. 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.
On this, the 64th annual International Human Rights Day, it is well past time for U.S. and local governmental officials to heed the recent findings of the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the urgings of the High Commissioner by implementing the systemic changes that the Committee has recommended in its Report. To continue to ignore the problems that the CAT has identified and the remedies it suggests will doom people of color here and abroad to further racist law enforcement violence and the continuation of a fundamentally unjust criminal justice system.
Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago. He is one of the lawyers for the families of slain Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and together with his law partner Jeffrey Haas was trial counsel in the marathon 1976 civil trial. He has also represented many survivors of Chicago police torture, was involved in the struggle for reparations, and has done battle with the Chicago Police Department—and the Fraternal Order of Police—on numerous occasions over his 45 year career as a people’s lawyer
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