Independent Commission Calls U.S. Police Killing of Blacks 'Crimes Against Humanity,' But Lacks Enforcement Authority

An independent commission announced its findings on April 27 with the publication of a detailed report that alleges the existence of systemic racism inherent in police violence against Black Americans, which they argue constitutes crimes against humanity.

Although the commission has no enforcement authority, it made specific referrals to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government and the U.S. Congress, among others.

In the U.S., the referrals included a call for reparations, action to review and retool existing law enforcement policies, and passage of legislation to hold law enforcement officers accountable when Black individuals die as a result of their encounters with police.

At the international level, the commission called upon the global community to support ICC investigations into systemic racist police violence in the U.S. under Article 7 of the court's Rome Statute, which covers crimes against humanity.

Though nations like Australia, Mexico, South Africa and the United Kingdom are among the Rome Statute's list of 123 signatory countries, the U.S. is not. America's lack of ICC membership means the ICC has significantly less jurisdiction over the U.S. than it does over its member states.

George Floyd NYC march
People walk over the Brooklyn Bridge following a memorial service for George Floyd, the man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza Park on June 4, 2020 in New York City. Floyd’s brother, Terrence, Mayor Bill de Blasio, local politicians and civic and religious leaders also attended the event before marching over the Brooklyn Bridge. Justin Heiman/Getty Images

The killing of George Floyd in May, an event captured on video that went viral, sparked protests across the nation, which inspired calls from relatives of Black Americans who have been victims of similar police conduct to request reviews of the institutions and workplace cultures that allow this violence to fester.

Floyd's death inspired debate at the U.N.'s HRC, which decided in June to create a report assessing how systemic racism and police conduct impacts Black individuals around the world.

But Floyd's family members and others who pushed for the inquiry had wanted the HRC to focus on those issues specifically in the U.S. In response to the U.N.'s global focus, three organizations—the U.S.-based National Conference of Black Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild, and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers—came together to launch an independent commission of their own, which was officially named the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States.

The commission's resulting 188-page report was funded by the National Lawyers Guild Foundation.

The commissioners wrote that they believed launching an independent inquiry was necessary because of the way the U.N. backed away from focusing on systemic racism and police conduct in the U.S. The report said the U.N. did so in response to pressure from the U.S. while the country was led by former President Donald Trump.

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US Vice President Kamala Harris (R) swears-in Linda Thomas-Greenfield (2nd L) as US Ambassador to the United Nations, alongside her husband Lafayette Greenfield (2nd R), and their son, Lafayette Greenfield II, in the Vice President's Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, February 24, 2021. SAUL LOEB / Contributor/Getty Images

"After succumbing to enormous pressure by the U.S. and its allies, the HRC instead directed the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to prepare a report on systemic racism and violations of international human rights by police against Africans and people of African descent throughout the world," the report said.

Jamil Dakwar, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Human Rights Program, said the U.N.'s decision to pursue an international report "ultimately was watered down" from the initial request for an inquiry with a U.S. focus, which the ACLU supported.

The independent commission's report "really came as a way to further document and press for international accountability that we asked for last summer," Dakwar told Newsweek.

He said it is important the public understands that the commission's report is entirely separate from the U.N. inquiry the ACLU joined in requesting, though Tuesday's report reiterates those earlier calls for the U.N. to focus its attention on allegations of racist police conduct in the U.S.

For their report, the 12 commissioners from countries around the world collected testimony from family members and attorneys of 43 Black individuals in the U.S. who were killed during encounters with police and one other Black individual who was paralyzed after he was shot by police.

The commission posits there are two law systems in the U.S., one for Black citizens, one for white citizens.

"Under color of law, Black people are targeted, surveilled, brutalized, maimed and killed by law enforcement officers with impunity, as being Black is itself criminalized and devalued," the report said. "After hearing the testimony and reviewing national data, the Commissioners conclude that both the relevant laws and police practices in the U.S. do not comply with the international human rights obligations of the U.S."

Congress negotiates George Floyd police reform bill
People raise their fists and hold a portrait of George Floyd during a rally following the guilty verdict the trial of Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. - Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted on April 20 of murdering African-American George Floyd after a racially charged trial that was seen as a pivotal test of police accountability in the United States. Elijah Nouvelage / AFP/Getty Images

The commission alleged there are international use-of-force violations within U.S. laws and law enforcement practices, which the report described as a "national pattern" that it alleged targets Black individuals as a result of racial stereotypes. Those stereotypes result in law enforcement officials "targeting" Black individuals "based on racist associations between Blackness and criminality," according to the report.

The report cited as examples traffic stops and "stop-and-frisk" incidents as policing methods that it said further exacerbate high arrest rates among Black Americans. It suggested the U.S. Supreme Court backs an interpretation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures," in a way that "expands state power to inflict violence against Black people."

The scarcity of independent reviews to assess citizen deaths while in police custody and the military equipment local police departments received from the Pentagon—the report cites $5.4 billion in such equipment dispersed since the U.S. declared a "Global War on Terror" following the attacks of September 11, 2001— have further contributed to the problem.

The commission's report arrives at a time of national reckoning about systemic racism in the U.S. and the ongoing impacts the country's racist past and present have on its Black population. More than 23 million Americans tuned in last week to watch as Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in Floyd's death, was found guilty by a trial of his peers, according to the Associated Press.

Breonna Taylor memorial
Supporters gather around a makeshift memorial in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13, 2021, to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of Breonna Taylor. JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images

After Chauvin's guilty verdict was read, President Joe Biden said it had the potential to be "a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America."

The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently announced an investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis, and earlier this week announced a similar investigation into the Louisville Police Department in Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor died after she was shot by police inside her apartment last spring. Taylor's case was one of the 44 the commission heard testimony about before compiling its assessment.

During a news conference on Tuesday at which several of the commissioners spoke, Commission Coordinator Lennox Hinds said those 44 cases were representative of "the tip of the iceberg of the systemic nature of the pandemic of racist police violence" against Black Americans.

He said that those victims and many others "fell at the hands of the police here in the United States—the same police who are sworn to serve and protect, and instead served as executioners of our children and of our loved ones."

Daunte Wright memorial
One of the caretakers of a memorial for Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man fatally shot earlier this month during a traffic stop in Minnesota, arranges flowers at the memorial site on April 20, 2021. KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

Bert Samuels, a commissioner from Jamaica, said he and his fellow commissioners were "often brought to tears" when they heard and saw examples of police violence in the U.S. He called upon the U.S. to review the commission's recommendations and "take immediate steps to correct the unabated epidemic of police killings of black women and men" through an "overhaul" of the country's justice system.

The commission went on to recommend further investigations by the U.N. HRC into U.S. police violence against Black Americans, an investigation into crimes against humanity to be conducted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and several specific recommendations for the executive branch of the U.S. government.

The recommendations for the Biden administration included joining the ICC, accepting the ICC's jurisdiction over matters discussed in the report, acknowledging the harm of slavery and systemic racism and pursuing reparations for Black Americans.

The recommendations serve as a reminder that the U.S. is not a member state of the ICC. The country's relationship with the ICC has fluctuated since the court's early days of existence in the late 1990s, with Democratic presidents tending to support the court's objectives more so than Republican presidents.

International Criminal Court building in The Hague
International Criminal Court building in The Hague Michel Porro/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump struck an unfriendly tone with the ICC while he was in office, going so far as to place sanctions on some ICC officials. Biden rescinded those Trump-era sanctions after taking office in January.

While the U.S. has supported select ICC efforts over the years, the country would need Biden's signature and support from two-thirds of the Senate in order to become an ICC member state. That kind of supermajority is unlikely in a time of heightened political polarization, when the Senate is equally split between Democrats and Republicans.

Though there are some actions the ICC can take involving U.S. citizens, the commission's ICC recommendations carry less weight than they would if the U.S. was in full cooperation with the court.

"The ICC does not have the jurisdiction to investigate crimes against humanity that were permitted on U.S. soil because the U.S. is not a party to the ICC," Dakwar told Newsweek.

"The most important contribution of this report would be for the U.N. Human Rights
Council to establish an independent commission of inquiry," Dakwar said, which he
added would provide an opportunity for a more expansive investigation than was
possible for the independent commission's report. The suggested HRC commission of
inquiry would serve a "complementary role" to the domestic response in the U.S., he
added.

Even though the ICC doesn't have jurisdiction in the U.S., the commissioners said they are hopeful their findings will put international pressure on the U.S. to comply with their recommendations.

Instead of observing police violence in America from afar, Hinds said the commission decided to "mobilize the international community to hold the United States to account."

"We can provide an objective statement of the reality that experts have shown in terms of the United States government holding itself up to be the bastion of human rights, while the objective evidence states to the contrary," Hinds said.

U.N. logo
The United Nations logo is seen at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Though the U.S. isn't a member of the international court, it does have U.N. membership, Hinds pointed out.

"The United States does not want to be condemned before the United Nations, or before the international community," he said.

Commissioner Peter Herbert of the United Kingdom agreed, and suggested Biden's administration may be more sensitive to the international reputation of the U.S. than was his predecessor. The protests against systemic racism that started in the U.S. last year before spreading around the world served as "a reminder that the United States is not above the law," Herbert said.

Samuels said he is hopeful the commissioners' distance from the U.S. as international experts would make it "very difficult for the U.S. to hide" from the report's recommendations.

"We are hoping, as outsiders making these recommendations, that we seem to be objective, and that help will come to [the] United States," he said.

Hinds said the commission is seeking accountability.

"Our objective at this point is to hold the United States accountable in terms of the international community," he said.

He said the first step is to share the commission's findings and recommendations with the international community before taking further steps.

"As we move on, we will be putting pressure, both on the Biden administration and on the Congress of the United States, to listen to the voices of victims of police crimes as reflected in the recommendations," Hinds said.