November 25, 2014
WASHINGTON (NNPA)—The fight for justice in Ferguson has gone global.
Tara Thompson, a corporate project manager who has been protesting and organizing in Ferguson since the summer, puts it this way: “It is unbelievable that I am staring down at a sniper rifle, pointed at me, that was paid for with my taxes. The United States should be outed. They police the world, telling everyone in other countries how to treat their citizens, how to implement democracy, and their own backyard is not clean.”
Thompson recently delivered this message to the world as a member of the Ferguson to Geneva delegation, which traveled to the world capital of peace for the 53rd session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
The delegation included Michael Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., one of their attorneys, Ferguson protesters, activists, and human rights lawyers working in the community. Their message was simple: the racial profiling and brutality reflected in Brown’s killing but also embedded in American law enforcement, as well as the militarized response to Ferguson protesters, are all violations of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The delegation spent several days attending hearings and testifying before the Committee, which monitors how well the participating nations uphold this treaty.
“We live in a society that tells Black people racial profiling ‘is not that bad,’ ‘it’s a necessary evil,’ ‘you guys are looting so you deserve it.’ So to have the UN say, no, you’re right, this is a human rights violation, is invaluable,” says Justin Hansford, lead organizer for Ferguson to Geneva.
According to the delegates, the receptive and affirming response from the international community was in stark contrast to that of the U.S. government delegation.
“The U.S. government delegation gave a completely inadequate response [to citizen testimonies]. Like, I mentioned that we should have a real mechanism to make police departments accountable for profiling—financially accountable,” Hansford says. “And the response was, ‘We already have a mechanism, you can sue them.’”
Hansford, who is also an international human rights law professor at Saint Louis University, points out that not only do civil suits take years to settle, but police officers’ legal costs are covered by their departments, unlike the costs for victims of police brutality/excessive force and their families.
In addition to oral testimonies, the Ferguson delegation also submitted a report on the shooting of Michael Brown and the militarized police response to nonviolent Ferguson protesters. Presented by Brown’s family, the Coalition for Black Struggle, HandsUpUnited, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, the report weaves testimony from protestors, the committee’s past recommendations to the United States, and the delegations own recommendations to the U.S. government.
“The United States must take steps to address the torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Michael Brown and other unarmed black and brown persons killed by law enforcement, as well as the torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of protesters in Ferguson exercising their right to peacefully assemble,” the report says.
“Recent incidents of police brutality, including the choking death of 43 year-old black man Eric Garner by New York police officer who used a chokehold banned by the NYPD, and the shooting death of 25 year-old unarmed black man Ezell Ford by a Los Angeles police officer underscore the U.S.’s failure to adequately address brutality and racial profiling by law enforcement.”
The report also lays out recommendations for Ferguson and the nation, including deploying body cameras in all police departments, annual reports on the use of deadly force in all departments that receive federal funding, and creating punitive laws to end racial profiling. The report also summarizes 2006 concluding observations from a few United Nations human rights committees. According to the authors, the U.S. has done a poor job of addressing these observations.
“I was dissatisfied with the U.S.’s responses…they were essentially the same from last time. You don’t really see a whole lot of progress,” says Meena Jagannath, report co-author and human rights attorney with the Miami-based Community Justice Project. “The fact that police accountability has not improved in the eight years since the last recommendations tells you a lot.”
Whenever the United Nations’ human rights-related committees convene, citizens of participating countries are invited to present relevant concerns. At this meeting, Americans produced 66 separate testimonial reports to submit before the committee. Australians, with the second-greatest number of reports, submitted 15.
The United States signed the Convention against Torture in 1988, but the Senate did not ratify it until 1994. With its authorization, the Senate also submitted a 706-word missive of reservations, which are conditions placed on the agreement.
The short version: the United States “is not bound by” one-third of the treaty’s text, and will only comply with it to the extent that it’s already complying with its own Constitution. Also, the U.S. does not consent to the treaty’s international accountability and conflict resolution procedure.
“Every human rights treaty the United States has signed has come with racks of reservations,” Jagannath says. “There would be significant pressure from the international community if the U.S. never signed the treaty…but they put on reservations that gut the treaty’s ability to hold them accountable. This is not lost on human rights advocates.”
The Committee Against Torture is an investigative body (its new observations will be shared on Friday via a global press conference and published report on its website). It does not have the power or authority to penalize nations for human rights violations.
Still, the Ferguson to Geneva delegation believes its mission was accomplished.
“We decided and understood that [the Ferguson movement] had to be bigger than the city or local area, bigger than the state, even bigger than the nation,” Thompson says. “The United States has done an exceptional job of presenting this picture of democracy. In Geneva, the people you talk to who ask you what you’re doing in Geneva—the people in the United Nations, the cab drivers, the people working in restaurants—you tell them about what’s going on in Ferguson and they can’t believe it.”
Hansford believes that monetary penalties and other punitive laws will produce faster results in ending excessive force and brutality across police departments. He also sees international effort as key to ending racial discrimination, pointing to the global movement to end South African apartheid as an example.
“Malcolm X was talking about and dreaming of taking the United States to the United Nations,” he says. “I feel like we made a positive step. [The Committee] even went above and beyond what we were saying; one of the members said, ‘It looks like [Ferguson is] in the middle of a civil war.’”
Jagannath also recalls several similar moments, such as one member’s comment that there had been “a degradation” in law enforcement’s behavior, and another’s observation that people of color, particularly young people, are not treated equally under the law in the U.S.
“We should keep pushing [police brutality and racial profiling] as a human rights issue because it promotes solidarity,” she says. “In the United States the discourse is mostly around civil rights, but when we do that we prevent our ability to connect with people abroad. That would be a really powerful discourse, and I think that’s the future of our movement.”