'Crime Against Humanity': US Police Killings of...
On April 27, the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States issued its long-awaited report on the U.S.’s police-perpetrated racist violence. The Commissioners concluded that the systematic police killings of Black people in the U.S. constitutes a prima facie case of crimes against humanity and they asked the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to initiate an investigation of responsible police officials.
These crimes against humanity under the ICC’s Rome Statute include murder, severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution of people of African descent, and inhumane acts causing great suffering or serious injury to body or mental or physical health. All of the crimes occurred in the context of a widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population of Black people in the United States.
A week after the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in George Floyd’s death, the unabated epidemic of police killings of Black men and women in the US has now attracted scorching international attention. In a devastating report running to 188 pages, human rights experts from 11 countries hold the US 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.
Among its other findings, the commission accuses the US of:
- 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 report arose directly out of the foment that swept the country in the wake of Floyd’s murder last May. 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 UN to set up an official inquiry into the shootings. Under intense pressure from the Trump administration, however, the UN shrank from being drawn into the debate. A coalition of three leading lawyers’ organizations – the US-based National Conference of Black Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild, and the worldwide International Association of Democratic Lawyers – stepped into the breach, joining forces to stage their own independent inquiry into US police brutality.
The commission’s report puts the human impact of systemic discrimination against African Americans in stark terms. It says that the US is operating two systems of law. “One is for white people, and another for people of African descent.” it said.
The report gives its own searing figures. Unarmed Black people are almost four times as likely as their white equivalents to be killed by police. Since 2005, about 15,000 people have been killed by law enforcement – a rate of about 1,000 every year. During that same period only 104 police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in relation to the incidents, and of those only 35 were convicted of any crime.
The commissioners found that systemic racist police violence against people of African descent in the United States has resulted in a pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. These include violations of the right to life; the right to liberty and security; the right to mental health; the right to be free from arbitrary detention; and the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The commissioners make a number of demands on the US government and Congress. They want to see demilitarization of local police forces, and prohibition of no-knock warrants that allow officers to raid the homes of Black people like Breonna Taylor’s without warning and often without cause. They also want an end to qualified immunity through which police officers avoid civil lawsuits. The commissioners say the loophole “amounts to condoning brutal police violence”.
But the most contentious demand is likely to be the call on the ICC prosecutor to launch an investigation against the US for crimes against humanity. It is questionable how effective that tactic would be even were such an inquiry started, given that the US has refused to recognize the international criminal court.