U.S. minority rights and policing under international scrutiny

A South Bend, Ind., demonstration supporting justice for Trayvon Martin (James Brosher/AP)

The international community is voicing growing concern that the United States is violating a host of international obligations on the rights of minorities, including immigrants, indigenous people and African Americans. At the core of these concerns is a police culture that routinely disregards the rights of people of color, as seen in immigration enforcement practices in the American Southwest as well as recent high-profile cases such as the death of Trayvon Martin.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, fatally shot the 17-year-old African American inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, on February 26. Despite audio recordings of a 911 call indicating that Zimmerman was aggressively pursuing the frightened youth in defiance of police instructions to back down, law enforcement accepted Zimmerman’s claim that he shot Martin in self-defense.

Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged in the incident, leading to a national uproar over the shooting and the botched police response. Rallies have been held across the country, drawing primarily African-American crowds but with significant multiracial support.

The incident has drawn comparisons to earlier killings of blacks that were treated with impunity, particularly that of Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. As the African-American lifestyle magazine Uptown pointed out,

Trayvon is Emmett Till.

Trayvon and Emmett were teenagers. Both were visiting relatives. Both were murdered by civilians. Both were missing for three days. But here is where Trayvon’s case takes a departure from Emmett’s: Emmett was accused, wrongfully, of course, of whistling at a white woman, and, thus, violating a white supremacist social more of that era. What did Trayvon do? Nothing. He was just there. Trayvon was killed simply for Being While Black.

In the peak of lynching in the United States, from 1882 to 1920, thousands of African Americans were murdered by vicious lynch mobs, crimes that were rarely if ever prosecuted. The memory of this history is at the heart of the movement for justice in the Trayvon Martin killing.

“No police have the power to be the judge, the jury and the legislature,” said Rev. Al Sharpton at a rally in Sanford last weekend. “We are not going back to the days when we were killed and nobody did nothing about it. There will be justice for Trayvon Martin.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay weighed in on the case Thursday, calling for an “immediate investigation” into the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

“As High Commissioner for Human Rights, I call for an immediate investigation,” Pillay told reporters. “Justice must be done for the victim. It’s not just this individual case. It calls into question the delivery of justice in all situations like this.”

Highlighting the apparently two-tiered justice system in the United States, Pillay said that “the law should operate equally in respect of all violations. I will be awaiting an investigation and prosecution and trial and of course reparations for the victims concerned.”

The High Commissioner’s comments came just days after the release of an Amnesty International report that extensively documents the routine human rights violations of people of color in the American Southwest, in this case, immigrants and indigenous people.

The report describes the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, which has been reflected in the explosion of new draconian laws across several states, including Alabama, Arizona and Georgia.  As Amnesty documents, immigrants in the USA are increasingly facing discriminatory treatment from federal immigration officials, who are collaborating to a greater extent than ever with state and local law enforcement agencies.

Amnesty notes that the anti-immigrant sentiment is not only affecting undocumented migrants, but also legal residents in the United States. Citizens of indigenous nations and members of Latino communities who are U.S. citizens or lawfully reside in the USA are more likely to be harassed about their immigration status and to be detained for minor offenses as a pretext for checking their identity through the immigration system.

“While it is generally accepted that countries have the right to regulate the entry and stay of non-nationals in their territory, they can only do so within the limits of their human rights obligations,” reads the Amnesty report. “The US government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that its laws, policies and practices do not place immigrants at an increased risk of human rights abuses.”

The basis of human rights is the recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, Amnesty explains. “Under international law, all migrants without exception of any kind are entitled to: the right to life; the right not to be tortured or ill-treated; the right not to be subject to impermissible discrimination; the right to recognition before the law; and the right not to be subject to slavery.”

(The relevant legal framework cited include: ICCPR Art. 6; and Migrant Workers Convention Art. 9; ICCPR Art. 7; CAT Art. 2; and Migrant Workers Convention Art. 10.; ICCPR Art. 2(1), Art. 26; ICESCR Art. 2(2); CRC Art. 2(1); ICERD Art. 1(1); and CEDAW Art. 1.; ICCPR Art. 16; and Migrant Workers’ Convention Art. 24.; ICCPR Art. 8(1) & (2); and Migrant Workers Convention Art. 11(1)); ICCPR Art. 11; Migrant Workers Convention Art. 20(1)).)

The United States has ratified, and is therefore obliged to adhere to, many of these key human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Amnesty’s report, however, shows that the USA is failing in a number of its obligations under international law to ensure these rights as they pertain to the immigrant and indigenous communities in the Southwest. Among its findings:

  • Recent immigration policy in certain border areas has pushed undocumented immigrants into using dangerous routes through the U.S. desert; hundreds of people die each year as a result.
  • Immigration enforcement in the USA is a federal responsibility. Federal immigration officials are increasingly working in collaboration with state and local law enforcement agencies but improper oversight of state and local law enforcement has led to increased racial profiling.
  • Increasingly, state laws and local policies are creating barriers to immigrants accessing their basic human rights, including rights to education and essential health care services. While these laws are targeting non-citizens, these policies are also impacting U.S. citizen children.
  • Recent legislation enacted or proposed in several states targets immigrant communities and places them, Indigenous communities and other minority communities at risk of discrimination.

Perhaps the most notorious offender when it comes to respecting the rights of Latinos is Maricopa Country Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who long before his state of Arizona passed its draconian anti-immigrant law known as SB 1070, was already taking it upon himself to enforce federal immigration laws with whatever means he deems appropriate.

In 2009, he stated publicly that “he would continue to exercise authority to enforce federal immigration laws in the field,” citing a non-existent federal statute to justify immigration stops and inquiries.

The sheriff added that he “would drive those caught on the streets to the border if federal officers refused to take them into custody.”

His aggressive practices as sheriff include heavily armed raids of Latino communities in neighborhoods, fast food restaurants, elementary schools and low-income areas. Some have dubbed the tactics “brown hunting.”

To its credit, the federal government has taken on some of Arpaio’s more appalling abuses, with the Department of Justice launching an investigation of the sheriff in 2008 for racial profiling and various civil rights violations.

In December 2011, the Justice Department announced the findings of its three year investigation, concluding that Arpaio has committed an extensive array of civil rights abuses against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and discrimination and carrying out heavy-handed immigration patrols based on racially charged citizen complaints.

The Justice Department said that Arpaio agreed to outside supervision, but a day before settlement negotiations were to begin, Arpaio refused to agree to a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes in his department, one of the Justice Department’s requirements.

“We believe that you are wasting time and not negotiating in good faith,” wrote Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy L. Austin Jr. in a letter to Arpaio’s attorney. “Your tactics have required DOJ to squander valuable time and resources.”

The DOJ said that Arpaio’s refusal of a court-appointed monitor was a deal-breaker that would end settlement negotiations and result in a federal lawsuit.

The investigation of Arpaio and his department is one of 17 probes the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is conducting of police and sheriff departments — the most in its 54-year history. Other departments being investigated include those in New Orleans; Newark; Seattle; Puerto Rico; Portland, Ore.; and East Haven, Conn.

The DOJ has also promised to investigate the shooting of Trayvon Martin for possible civil rights violations.

While these DOJ investigations are welcome developments, a more comprehensive effort may be needed for the United States to bring itself into compliance with international humanitarian law as it pertains to minority rights, race relations and policing.

Among the recommendations that Amnesty International offers in its report include suspending all immigration enforcement programs pending a review by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General to determine whether the programs can be implemented in a nondiscriminatory manner.

The human rights group also calls on all state governments to ensure that their legislation respects immigrants’ rights including freedom from discrimination and the right to due process.


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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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