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US faces allegations of human rights abuses over treatment of protesters

The U.S. treatment of protesters is coming under the scrutiny of the international community and advocacy groups, with some alleging that certain police actions against demonstrators qualify as human rights abuses.

Multiple violent conflicts between police and protesters have erupted over the past week and a half over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.

Law enforcement’s general policing practices and police officers’ use of force tactics to help manage or quell unrest with protesters are facing condemnation. And some groups are questioning if the U.S. justice system is prepared to handle such cases.

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Monday wrote an open letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for an emergency session of the global body and an investigation into police violence and repression of protests in the U.S.

“It is time the United States face the same scrutiny and judgement it is quick to pass on to other countries,” Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, said in a statement.

“As communities in the United States call on their leaders to divest from policing and end structural racism, the United Nations must support these domestic demands by holding the United States accountable for its human rights violations,” Dakwar added.

Rolando Gomez, a spokesman for the Human Rights Council, said they received the letter from the ACLU but said a special session can only be held if there’s a push from one-third of the 47 members of the committee.

“For the moment, no official request has come in from [member states], yet it is likely this issue is raised at the upcoming resumed Council session to start next week (on 15 June),” he wrote in an email.

The Human Rights Council has dedicated an agenda item to addressing combating racism and racial discrimination, Gomez added.

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The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has so far resisted calling for an investigation into whether the violence in the U.S. has violated international law, though she has questioned the strength of the U.S. justice system to handle such cases.

“I welcome the fact that the Federal authorities have announced that an investigation will be prioritized. But in too many cases in the past, such investigations have led to killings being deemed justified on questionable grounds, or only being addressed by administrative measures,” she said in a statement on May 28. “The role that entrenched and pervasive racial discrimination plays in such deaths must also be fully examined, properly recognized and dealt with.”

Some critics have gone further, describing videos and press reports as evidence of police actions violating international law.

“Unfortunately, at the moment, based on what we can watch on our screen and what we can read in our newspaper, there is a pattern of violations committed by police force in handling the protest,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard told Public Radio International in an interview on Friday.

“What we are seeing is the repeated misuse, the absence of proper guidelines and regulations, legal frameworks which are enshrining excessive use of force and impunity,” Callamard said, pointing to the United States' “qualified immunity” doctrine that puts the burden on prosecutors to prove that police officers clearly violated the law or the Constitution.

Still, legal experts say it is unlikely an international court will hear such cases.

“Violations of international law rarely end up in an international courtroom,” said Rebecca Hamilton, an associate professor at the American University, Washington College of Law.

Hamilton, who previously served as a lawyer in the prosecutorial division of the International Criminal Court (ICC), said the U.S. “has more power to protect itself from international scrutiny than many other countries.”

While the ICC can investigate crimes of countries that have signed onto the ICC’s Rome Statute, the U.S. is not one of those. The U.N. Security Council can also refer situations to the ICC, but the U.S. has veto power and can stop such a referral.

There are other methods, however. The U.S. is part of international treatises, and if their actions are viewed as a violation of one of these agreements, forums like the Human Rights Council or others can specifically press the U.S. about allegations of violating international law. The U.S. would then have to provide a report detailing what has been addressed together and other actionable steps.

“But that doesn't mean there is no value to calling out countries who violate their international legal obligations. Domestic protesters can use statements about international violations to raise their own calls for accountability and push for change domestically,” Hamilton added.

If concern is raised among international organizations like the U.N., it's likely to receive strong pushback from U.S. officials. 
 
Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft called it a false equivalence to compare the instances of police violence that led to the death of Floyd and directed toward protesters in the U.S. with how authoritarian regimes put down popular protests. 

“What I really want to stress is that I would challenge anyone to compare their record with our record as far as how they treat situations,” she said in a briefing with reporters on Friday. 

The Trump administration has also taken extraordinary exception with the ICC, with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: US, India to share satellite data | Allegations of racism at Virginia Military Institute | Navy IDs 2 killed in Alabama plane crash US, India to share sensitive satellite data Office of Special Counsel widens Pompeo probe into Hatch Act violations  MORE slamming it as a “nakedly political body” and having earlier put visa restrictions on its chief prosecutor over attempts to investigate American soldiers in Afghanistan on charges of war crimes.

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Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have also accused the ICC of politically motivated investigations, criticizing the international court of “misuse” of its power in pushing for investigations into alleged war crimes by Israel against the Palestinians.

The events of the past 10 days — including police clashes with peaceful protesters — have also alarmed international human rights groups.

Human Rights Watch has taken issue with instances of excessive, unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against protesters, including instances where police fired pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades.

Laura Pitter, deputy director for the organization's U.S. Program, expressed concern over the ability of the U.S. justice system to tackle these issues but said she welcomed international bodies, like the United Nations, weighing in. 

“There are enormous problems with our U.S. criminal legal systems that have failed to address accountability for excessive use of force on a variety of levels across the U.S. for decades,” she said.

Chilling images and video of police using force against peaceful protesters have prompted arrests and dismissals. In Philadelphia, a police inspector surrendered himself on felony charges after video showed him hitting a female protester on the head with a metal baton as she tried to run away.

But in many cases, action has not been taken against police officers who have come under fire for using force against peaceful protesters.

Some experts warn that if unaddressed, the use of violence by police could grow into a bigger issue.

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“The use of violence by police — whether in Hong Kong or South Sudan or Minneapolis — if left unchecked, always gets worse,” said Kristina Roth, the senior program officer for Criminal Justice Programs at Amnesty International USA.

Hardy Merriman, CEO and president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, told The Hill nonviolent protests and civil resistance are “part of our American tradition,” and the use of violence to put down such movements reflect a worrying trend in the direction of democracies.

“These movements historically have tended to make democracy stronger and they do this around the world,” he said. “Trying to squash them with violent force would be erosive to our democracy.”