I read a lot of UN and other independent reports about the human rights situation in Latin American countries. It’s always interesting, though, to read UN reports about the human rights situation here in the United States.
On September 26, the UN Human Rights Council published the report of a group of experts who visited several U.S. cities in April and May 2023. (Among them was Juan Méndez, who is very well known to Latin America specialists for many past roles, including former president of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and former director of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights.)
The experts’ report is direct and hard-hitting. Though the United States prides itself as a bastion of liberty and democracy, much of the UN experts’ language could just as easily apply to a Latin American nation for which I’ve advocated limits on U.S. security assistance.
The report is available here as a PDF, and at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website as a Word (.doc) file. Here are some highlights. Passages that I found especially jaw-dropping are emphasized with highlighting.
On law enforcement agencies’ use of force policies, or remarkable lack thereof:
During the visit, the Mechanism was informed that not all States in the US have regulations on the use of force and that there is no full nationwide regulation on the topic, with only a Supreme Court doctrine and Fourth Amendment rights applicable. The Mechanism is concerned that existing local and national standards on the use of force by law enforcement officials, including the Supreme Court rulings and the Department of Justice’s updated policy, do not meet international standards.
The Mechanism is profoundly concerned that this current regulatory situation is conducive to the early and unjustified use of force, including lethal force, by law enforcement. The Mechanism has received evidence suggesting that numerous law enforcement practices do not prioritize de-escalation and other less harmful methods of control of the situation, contrary to the principles of strict necessity and precaution of international use of force standards.
On lethal use of force:
The Mechanism is alarmed by the figures and circumstances in which people are killed by police in the United States. Every year, more than 1,000 individuals are reportedly killed by law enforcement throughout the country. Available data shows that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and reports suggest that 33% of all persons killed between 2015 and the first half of 2023 were running or driving away or otherwise trying to flee from law enforcement.
The Mechanism was concerned by reports suggesting that in 2022, the US had the higher number of police killings in a decade, with more than 1,200 people killed by law enforcement. Among these, 281 were Black people. The Mechanism is troubled by the fact that 59% (685) of all killings by police in 2022 were related to traffic stops, mental health crisis, or people not alleged to be threatening anyone with a gun.
On racial profiling:
According to a Department of Justice special report , Black persons were three times more likely to experience the threat of force or use of nonfatal force; three times more likely to be shouted at by police; and 11 times more likely to experience police misconduct (slur, bias or sexual misconduct), during their most recent police contact in 2020, than white persons.
In this sense, the Mechanism rejects the “bad apple” theory, suggesting that racial discrimination in policing is the result of isolated actions of a small number of rogue police officers. There is strong evidence that the abusive behaviour of some individual police officers is part of a broader and menacing pattern, connected into larger social, historical, cultural and structural contexts, within which policing is undertaken. Law enforcement officers in the United States share and reproduce values, attitudes and stereotypes of US society and institutions.
On disproportionate incarceration of Black people:
Black people are the most incarcerated and most criminally supervised persons in the United States. In 2021, 1,704,000 Black persons were under criminal administration: 591,000 incarcerated (391,000 in prison and 221,000 in a local jail) and 1,136,000 under probation (864,000) or parole (280,000). An estimated 1 in 19 (rate of 5,350 per 100,000) Black adult was under correctional supervision, compared to 1 in 62 (rate of 1,620 per 100,000) white adult.
…The Mechanism is deeply concerned by these numbers. These significantly disproportionate rates between Black and white persons are staggering.
On long-term incarceration of children:
[T]he Mechanism was shocked by information stating that at least 32,359 individuals are currently incarcerated in the US for offenses they committed when they were children, and that 80% of those are non-white and 58% are Black. 6,301 (19.47%) of these children were sentenced to life term and 3,162 are serving de facto life sentences (sentence over 39 years ).
On the population held in pre-trial detention:
About 451,400 people are detained pretrial on any given day in the United States. In 2002, 29% of people in jails were held pretrial; by 2023, that number increased to 71%. During the visit to the Los Angeles County Jails and the Cook County Jail, the Mechanism was shocked by allegations of inmates being held in pre-trial detention for long periods (i.e. more than 10 years) and for periods longer than the eligible sentence of the offence they may have committed, if convicted.
On the use of forced, unpaid, or poorly paid prison labor, permitted by the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, especially for Black inmates:
The Mechanism is astonished by evidence stating that this access to free or almost free Black work force, through free or poorly paid prison forced labour, exists to this day in the United States, constituting a contemporary form of slavery. Further, it received information stating that workers in prison are assigned hazardous work in unsafe conditions without the training or protective gear needed, and, if they refused to work, even for a medical condition or disability, they are punished accordingly.
The delegation received shocking information over “plantation-style” prisons in Southern States, in which contemporary forms of slavery are reported. Commonly known as “Angola”, the Louisiana State Penitentiary occupies an 18,000-acre former slave plantation, larger than the island of Manhattan. The plantation prison soil worked by incarcerated labour today is the same soil worked by slaves before the civil war. “Angola” currently houses nearly 5000 adult men, the majority of them Black men, forced to labour in the fields (even picking cotton) under the watch of white “freemen” on horseback, in conditions very similar to those of 150 years ago.
On the drug war, racism, and militarization of policing:
[I]n the US Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, albeit comparable usage rates. But in some specific US states, disparities can be greater, as much as six, eight or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested.
The Mechanism joins other UN mandates stating that the ‘war on drugs’ “has been more effective as a system of racial control than as a tool to reduce drug markets. Policing interventions based on racial profiling remain widespread, whilst access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction for people of African descent remains critically low.”
The Mechanism received information on the inseparable links between the federal drug policy, the federal programs funding and transferring military equipment to law enforcement agencies, and police killings of inhabitants in the US. Black people are more impacted by the use of this kind of equipment and tactics deployed in drug related raids, despite the fact that people of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates. Normalization of military equipment in law enforcement agencies can enable and encourage a type policing that prioritize use of force, including excessive use of force.
On abuse of Black migrants:
During the visit, the Mechanism received several detailed accounts of anti-Black and racially based arbitrary detention and ill-treatment against migrants and asylum seekers of African Descent, including Haitians, by US immigration authorities.
According to information received, Haitian migratory-detained persons were denied access to sufficient food, health care, interpreters, information and legal counsel; after which they were returned to Haiti by plane restrained in handcuffs and shackles causing severe additional psychological suffering due to the association of this practice not only to criminality, but to slavery.
On crowd control and the response to 2020 anti-racism protests:
[T]he Mechanism received accounts on the authorities’ response to anti-racism protests in 2020, that led to thousands of arbitrary arrests and hundreds of people injured, mostly by the misuse or excessive use of less lethal weapons against protestors, such as batons, chemical irritants and kinetic impact weapons (for example rubber bullets). For example, 115 people were shot in the head and neck with kinetic impact projectiles by police between May 26 and July 27, 2020.
Information received make clear that in the 2020 anti-racism protests law enforcement confronted peaceful manifestations with riot gear as a first level response, rather than only in response to specific incidents of violence. Evidence suggests that law enforcement use a variety of unjustified levels of force, including less lethal weapons, against large peaceful demonstrations and against journalists, legal observers and paramedical teams, in violation of human rights standards.
…The Mechanism is particularly concerned over reports that the 2020 anti-racism protests were followed by widespread legislative measures and initiatives in some states, which would unduly restrict the right to peaceful assembly.
On lack of accountability for abuse:
Only 1.9% of all killings by police in the past decade (2013-2022) resulted in police officers being charged with a crime. In 2022, available data indicates the proportion was only in 1% of the cases.