Archive | January 2016

Widespread criticism of U.S. human rights practices as 2016 gets underway

us human rights

Numerous non-governmental organizations and a UN panel of experts last week issued a litany of serious concerns about the state of human rights in the United States as the new year – and President Obama’s final year in office – gets underway. Considering the depth and breadth of criticism, it is clear that Obama will be leaving behind a troubling legacy of human rights problems, which will prove not only a challenge for his successor (assuming the next president gives a whit about human rights), but also the nation as a whole for many years to come.

Amnesty International, for starters, issued a harsh statement on January 29, regretting that a full seven years into Obama’s presidency, the human rights abomination known as Guantanamo Bay remains open – despite Obama’s many promises over the years to close the notorious prison.

“Two weeks after the Guantánamo Bay detention site entered its 15th year of operation, the detention site faces a new milestone,” Amnesty noted in a press release Friday. “As of tomorrow, January 30, Guantánamo will have been open longer under President Obama’s administration than the previous administration which opened the site for indefinite detention.”

Marking the shameful milestone, Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights program, issued the following statement:

With Guantánamo now open longer on his watch than on former President Bush’s, President Obama’s human rights legacy is on the line. In some ways, Obama will be defined by whether he chose to end fifteen years of injustice and human rights violations at Guantánamo.

President Obama was able to cut the prison’s population by nearly 10 percent this month alone and he must continue to show he’s undeterred by congressional threats and fear mongering. The prison should be shuttered, and detainees who cannot be transferred should be charged in federal court or released. There must be accountability for the torture and other human rights violations that many of the detainees have suffered.

Human Rights Watch also had some stern words for the United States last week. In publishing its annual catalogue of the state of human rights around the world, World Report 2016, HRW focused particular attention on misguided U.S. policies towards refugees and migrants. As the group pointed out on January 27,

In December 2014, the US opened its largest lock-up for arriving migrant families, a detention facility slated to house more than 2,400 parents and children – primarily asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. A year earlier, the US had only 85 beds specifically dedicated to detaining families. This new policy of detaining families from Central America in large numbers was in response to an influx of arrivals seeking refuge from uncontrolled gang violence in their home countries.

These policies, which criminalize and discriminate against “people seeking refuge or reunification with their families in the US during 2015 have been ill-considered, discriminatory, and harmful,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The Obama administration is sending messages of detention, discrimination, and distrust to families fleeing violence and persecution at home,” said Alison Parker, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “US policymakers should reverse course and stop treating undocumented arrivals as criminals.”

Other major concerns raised by HRW included:

When it comes to the issue of sentencing and mass incarceration, HRW noted that the United States locks up 2.37 million people, by far the largest incarcerated population in the world. Another 12 million people pass through local jails annually.

HRW noted that concerns over over-incarceration in prisons have led some states and the U.S. Congress to introduce several reform bills, but regretted that none of the federal congressional measures had become law.

The rights group also pointed out that racial disparities “permeate every part of the US criminal justice system,” with particularly egregious disparities when it comes to drug law enforcement.

“While whites and African Americans engage in drug offenses at comparable rates, African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug offenses at much higher rates,” HRW pointed out. “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

Racial disparities in criminal justice – and virtually all other facets of American life – were also in focus last week with the conclusion of an official visit by the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which visited several U.S. cities from January 19-29.

Despite observing some positive indications of halting progress in certain areas – including a growing mass movement for racial justice and some attempts to introduce more fairness into criminal sentencing – overall, the Working Group was “extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.”

In a statement issued January 29, the UN body said:

The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.

Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans. Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.

The scathing statement went on to list a whole litany of concerns ranging from discriminatory voter ID laws; states’ rejection of Medicaid expansion (with a disproportionate adverse impact on African Americans’ health); the existence of “food deserts” in many African American communities; the education system’s whitewashing of African enslavement; the housing crisis and high rates of homelessness and gentrification; the high unemployment rate of African Americans; and the environmental justice denied African Americans by highly polluting industries often disproportionately being placed in their communities.

Even Freedom House, which receives the lion’s share of its funding from the U.S. federal government, had some strong words of criticism for the United States last week.

Although the U.S. received Freedom House’s top ratings for political rights and civil liberties, the country “was affected by the cumulative impact over recent years of certain deficiencies in the electoral system, the influence of private money in election campaigns and the legislative process, legislative gridlock, the Obama administration’s failure to fulfill promises of enhanced government openness, and fresh evidence of instances of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” the NGO noted.

Specifically, Freedom House pointed to the ongoing “controversy over relations between black citizens and the police [which] grew in intensity in 2015.” Protests in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other cities highlighted “incidents in which black people, often unarmed, were shot or fatally injured in confrontations with the police,” Freedom House observed.

Another issue the group pointed to is the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, which contravenes the U.S. government’s international obligation to protect the right to life.

As Freedom House pointed out,

Mass shootings continued to claim lives across the country, renewing a perennial discussion of proposed restrictions on gun ownership. While the targets of the separate attacks included a college campus and a women’s health clinic and featured a variety of motives, the year’s deadliest assault was carried out in San Bernardino, California, by a husband and wife who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Obama took modest executive actions to tighten enforcement of existing laws and urged further changes through the legislative process. However, the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, and the Republican Party remained strongly opposed to any new gun-control proposals.

With just one year left in his presidency, Obama obviously cannot be expected to remedy all of the above-mentioned human rights issues, and certainly not all of them can be blamed on his leadership – or lack thereof – over the past seven years. However, there are many things he could do in his final months to at least attempt to marginally improve the state of human rights in the U.S., including by prioritizing the closing of the Guantanamo prison once and for all, and reversing some of the discriminatory policies his administration has implemented on refugees and migrants.

Perhaps above all, it is important that the president begins to use the bully pulpit to more clearly speak out on human rights domestically. This way, at least, these issues may become part of the national dialogue in this crucial election year, in a way that they have not been up until now.

Despite its human rights problems at home, U.S. trains police forces abroad

police_brutality

The numbers are in, and it is now confirmed that 2015 was the deadliest year for civilians interacting with police since records have been kept. Of course, this is not saying all that much since last year was the first year in which records were kept in any comprehensive fashion.

Filling a notable gap in record-keeping by the United States government, which doesn’t bother to gather data on how many civilians are slain by police in a given year, news organizations including The Washington Post and The Guardian last year determined that between 965 and 1,134 civilians were killed by police, depending on what counting standards are used. (The Washington Post only tracked fatal police shootings, not killings by other forms of force, while the Guardian employed a more comprehensive methodology.)

While much of the focus of the police deaths has been on the racial component of the nationwide police brutality epidemic, fueled in large part by the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and the media’s tendency to devote more attention to cases following an easily digestible racial narrative, the numbers confirm in fact that the rampant police violence impacts communities of all colors and creeds across the United States.

Indeed, despite the disproportionate attention paid to cases involving a white cop and black victim, more whites were killed by police than any other race in 2015. According to the Guardian’s tally, the total numbers of police victims are as follows:

  • 577 White
  • 300 Black
  • 193 Hispanic/Latino
  • 27 Other/Unknown
  • 24 Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 13 Native American

Of course, while the raw numbers appear to demonstrate an equal-opportunity problem that cuts across racial lines, when analyzed a bit more closely, it is clear that in fact the tendency of police to kill civilians is a much greater threat to African Americans than it is to any other group. Nearly seven out of a million black people were killed by police in America last year, while white victims accounted for 2.86 per million. In other words, African Americans were nearly 2.5 times as likely to be killed by police as their white counterparts.

Age and gender also play a factor in being killed by police, with young black men being nine times more likely than other Americans to die at the hands of a cop in 2015, according to the Guardian study. As the UK-based paper further explained:

Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.

Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.

But even setting aside the racial factor, it is clear that far too many people of all races and ages are killed by their police forces in America, a trend of police brutality not seen in other “advanced democracies.” Even looking at just the white victims of police violence, the U.S. is in a league of its own. According to the Guardian,

[L]ooking at our data for the US against admittedly less reliable information on police killings elsewhere paints a dramatic portrait, and one that resonates with protests that have gone global since a killing last year in Ferguson, Missouri: the US is not just some outlier in terms of police violence when compared with countries of similar economic and political standing.

America is the outlier – and this is what a crisis looks like.

The Independent, another British paper, illustrated the issue this way:

police-shootings

 

Taking a broad view of the situation, it seems clear that the problem is deeper than just a matter of racial discrimination, and in fact reflects a fundamental lack of respect for human life by U.S. police, regardless of race.

Take for example the recent case of a white drunk driver who was gunned down by a cop after having flipped his vehicle in Paradise, California. The driver attempted to crawl out of the car after surviving the accident, only to be inexplicably shot by a police officer on the scene for no apparent reason.

In that particular case, the police officer claimed that his firearm went off by “accident” but anyone watching the video can see that all indications point to an intentional shooting. This would fit in a pattern of senseless police violence that was described in a report issued last year by Amnesty International as a possible violation of international norms.

The report, “Deadly Force,” pointed out:

The use of lethal force by law enforcement officers raises serious human rights concerns, including in regard to the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law. The United States has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these human rights and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which explicitly protects these rights.

One of a state’s most fundamental duties which police officers, as agents of the state, must comply with in carrying out their law enforcement duties, is to protect life. In pursuing ordinary law enforcement operations, using force that may cost the life of a person cannot be justified. International law only allows police officers to use lethal force as a last resort in order to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. The United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or the defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and that, in any event, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Furthermore, international law enforcement standards require that force of any kind may be used only when there are no other means available that are likely to achieve the legitimate objective. If the force is unavoidable it must be no more than is necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective, and law enforcement must use it in a manner designed to minimise damage or injury, must respect and preserve human life and ensure medical aid are provided as soon as possible to those injured or affected.

The problem of police violence also caught the attention of the United Nations last year. At the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review for compliance on human rights norms at the United Nations Human Rights Council in May, the United States heard criticism of its policies ranging from Guantanamo to the death penalty to police brutality.

The representative from Nambia, for example, said U.S. officials must “collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate against them, despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men.”

“Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image,” said Awada Angui, the delegate from that country.

The barrage of criticism led James Cadogan, senior counselor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, to concede that the United States has a problem with police violence.

“We must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise,” he said at the review. “The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have… challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress.”

The review “was a demonstration of the no confidence vote that world opinion has made of the United States as a country that considers itself a human rights champion,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that there was a clear message from today’s review that the United States needs to do much more to protect human rights and to bring its laws and policies in line with human rights standards.”

Yet, despite its wholesale violations of international norms on policing at home, the United States is currently engaging in international training programs of police in other countries, which can only be seen as a potential disaster for human rights.

A June 10, 2015 post on the US Department of State’s official blog revealed that the Department of Justice and Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) are running a police training program in Kiev, Ukraine. The program has trained at least 100 Ukrainian police instructors to oversee a new 2,000-member patrol unit as part of a broader effort to “fundamentally change the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of Ukraine.”

The blog post noted that the police trainers – hailing from Nevada, California and Ohio – “traveled to Ukraine to teach tactical skills training and mentor the instructors as they train the first new cadets.”

The training program “has been key in advancing our goals in Ukraine and deepening our relationships with the new government,” stated the post.

This relationship, of course, stems from a violent U.S.-backed coup d’etat that ousted the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Ukraine has been embroiled in civil war ever since.

Besides the self-serving geopolitical nature of the police training program, what is astounding about it is that the U.S. feels that it is in any position to train any country’s police. Indeed, considering the widespread epidemic of police brutality in the United States, it is clear that U.S. police need training before they go training other countries’ police forces.

The practice of U.S. international police trainings has long caught the attention of human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Amnesty notes that the United States government trains at least 100,000 foreign soldiers and police from more than 150 countries each year at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, but “the vast majority of U.S.-administered training courses do not include specific instruction in the human rights or humanitarian law obligations that soldiers must obey.”

Unfortunately, according to Amnesty, “many of the government forces the U.S. has trained have poor human rights records.”

The human rights group points out that it is “vital that the U.S. military mainstream human rights and humanitarian law into all foreign military and police training. Such instruction should be mandatory for all U.S. and foreign trainees attending courses, and it should be reinforced through operational exercises.”

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