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.

Flint Taylor

(United Nations / Flickr)

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.

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.

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 911, 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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