In what has been described as a “devastating” report, human rights experts and lawyers have investigated and released a 188-page analysis of the ongoing police brutality and killing of Black Americans in the U.S. Their verdict: the country is guilty of “crimes against humanity” and should be prosecuted for its ongoing actions in international criminal court.
Ed Pilkington of The Guardian has reported that, following months of an ongoing investigation, “human rights experts from 11 countries hold the U.S. accountable for what they say is a long history of violations of international law that rise, in some cases, to the level of crimes against humanity.”
The international investigation of police brutality in the U.S. began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“As protests erupted across the nation and around the world, the families of Floyd and other Black people killed by police in recent years petitioned the United Nations to set up an official inquiry into the shootings,” Pilkington said.
After the Trump administration applied pressure on the U.N. to avoid the inquiry, other groups stepped in to complete the investigation in their place. These groups included the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and a panel of commissioners from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
The initial facts the group found were beyond troubling: since 2005, an estimated 15,000 people have been killed by law enforcement — approximately 1,000 men and women per year. Of those deaths, only 104 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter as a result of their actions and only 35 were convicted of a crime.
The international commission next decided to dig deeper into these cases through a series of public virtual hearings. Investigators listened to testimony from the families of recent victims and set out to examine the nature and cause of police violence in the U.S. as well as the structural racism that may be triggering it.
According to Pilkington, the group examined the stories of 44 Black men and women who died or were maimed by police, including “Floyd; Sean Bell, killed on his wedding day in 2006 after police fired 50 bullets; Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold in 2014 crying “I can’t breathe”; Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old playing with a toy gun [who was] shot in 2014 seconds after police arrived; Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old whose killing ignited the Black Lives Matter Movement; Freddie Gray, who died in 2015 after enduring a “rough ride” in a police van; and Breonna Taylor, killed as she was sleeping in a police raid on her home in March 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky.”
Following the investigation, the commission decided that these “police murders” and “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhuman acts” are indeed a form of systematic attacks on the Black community and meet the definition of crimes against humanity. They also called on international criminal court investigators at The Hague to open an immediate investigation into the matter, including prosecution if necessary.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hina Jilani, one of the 12 commissioners who led the inquiry, said, “this finding of crimes against humanity was not given lightly. We included it with a very clear mind. We examined all the facts and concluded that there are situations in the U.S. that beg the urgent scrutiny of the ICC.”
Pointing directly to the death of George Floyd, Jilani said, “It clarified for us that the use of force during the arrest of an individual is not just dehumanizing, it clearly amounts to torture and potential loss of life.”
In addition to the crimes against humanity charge, the commission also charged the U.S. with:
- “violating its international human rights obligations, both in terms of laws governing policing and in the practices of law enforcement officers, including traffic stops targeting Black people and race-based stop-and-frisk”
- “tolerating an ‘alarming national pattern of disproportionate use of deadly force not only by firearms but also by Tasers’ against Black people”
- “operating a ‘culture of impunity’ in which police officers are rarely held accountable while their homicidal actions are dismissed as those of just ‘a few bad apples’”
“The commissioners also charge that African Americans are frequently subjected to torture at the hands of police,” Pilkington wrote. “They assert that the use of chokeholds and other violent restraints during arrests are tantamount to torture — also a crime against humanity under international law.”
Describing the violence and murders of Black people she saw taking place as a result of the investigation, Jilani told the Guardian, “I found the testimonies we heard in the U.S. extremely distressing. I was taken aback that this country, which claims to be a global champion of human rights, itself fails to comply with international law. It became clear that this was no longer an account of individual trauma, it was an account of trauma inflicted on a whole section of the U.S. population.”
The report from the commission lays things out in even more stark terms, claiming that America is operating two systems of law: “One is for white people, and another for people of African descent.”
How effective these incredibly serious charges against the U.S. will ultimately be, however, remains to be seen. Although the U.S. was a crucial part of the movement that helped to bring about the creation of the ICC, it has never officially joined the group. While 123 different countries do follow ICC law, the U.S. (along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen) has so far refused.