UN Report: US Authorities Should Act to Combat Police Torture and Violence

UN Committee Against Torture Report: U.S. Authorities Should Act to Combat Police Torture and Violence in Chicago and Across the Nation

December 10th is International Human Rights Day, which was first declared in 1950 by the United Nations in order to “bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” On such an important date, it is appropriate to illuminate the recent proceedings before the United Nations Committee Against Torture, (CAT), and the findings that the CAT made in response.

In mid-November, representatives of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project and We Charge Genocide, the parents of Michael Brown, and other activists journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland and presented evidence concerning law enforcement violence and torture in Chicago, across the United States, and at Guantanamo, to the experts of the CAT.  When representatives of the United States Government presented its defense to the documented charges, many in the activists, led by the We Charge Genocide delegation, stood and unfurled signs in silent protest. On November 20th, the CAT issued its findings on these and other related human rights issues.


With regard to the ongoing Chicago police torture scandal, which the CAT first cited in its 2006 findings, and the ongoing police violence against African American and Latinos in Chicago, the CAT first addressed the need for specific legislation making torture by law enforcement officers a federal crime. Referencing the Law Enforcement Torture Prevention Act which has been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Danny Davis on two separate occasions, and which would make police torture a federal crime without a statute of limitations, the Committee found:

The Committee reiterates its previous recommendation (A/55/44, para. 180 (a) and CAT/C/USA/CO/2, para. 13) that the State party should criminalize torture at the federal level, in full conformity with article 1 of the Convention, and ensure that penalties for torture are commensurate with the gravity of this crime. It recommends the re-introduction of the Law Enforcement Torture Prevention Act, a bill which contains a definition of torture and specifically criminalizes acts of torture by law enforcement personnel and others under the color of law.

Later in the Report, the Committee again addressed the Chicago police torture scandal, stating that:

with regard to the acts of torture committed by CPD Commander Jon Burge and others under his command between 1972 and 1991, the Committee notes the information provided by the State party that a federal rights investigation did not develop sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that prosecutable constitutional violations occurred.  However, it remains concerned that, despite the fact that Jon Burge was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, no Chicago police officer has been convicted for these acts of torture for reasons including the statute of limitations expiring. While noting that several victims were ultimately exonerated of the underlying crimes, the vast majority of those tortured –most of them African Americans–, have received no compensation for the extensive injuries suffered (arts. 11, 12, 13, 14 and 16).

The Committee then renewed its call for torture prosecutions and gave a strong endorsement to the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project’s ongoing campaign for financial, psychological, medical, and educational reparations for the survivors of Burge related torture by calling on the Government to provide for the “redress for CPD torture survivors by supporting the passage of the Ordinance entitled Reparations for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors.” Reparations such as those sought in Chicago are called for by General Comment 3 to Article 14 of the UN Convention Against Torture.

The CAT also stated, in response to a Report presented by We Charge Genocide, that it was “particularly concerned at the reported current police violence in Chicago, especially against African-American and Latino young people who are allegedly being consistently profiled, harassed and subjected to excessive force by Chicago Police,” and with the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” In response, it urged the authorities to “ensure that all instances of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officers are investigated promptly, effectively and impartially by an independent mechanism with no institutional or hierarchical connection between the investigators and the alleged perpetrators.”

Use of Tasers

The Committee also examined law enforcement’s use of Tasers on unarmed citizens:

The Committee is concerned about numerous, consistent reports that police have used electrical discharge weapons against unarmed individuals who resist arrest or fail to comply immediately with commands, suspects fleeing minor crime scenes, or even minors.

The Committee further stated that it was “appalled at the number of reported deaths after the use of electrical discharge weapons,” singled out the recent cases of Israel “Reefa” Hernández Llach in Miami Beach, Florida, and Dominique Franklin Jr. in Sauk Village, Illinois, and emphasized “the need to introduce more stringent regulations governing their use.” It also urged that tasers  be used “exclusively in extreme and limited situations –where there is a real and immediate threat to life or risk of serious injury– as a substitute for lethal weapons and by trained law enforcement personnel only,”  that tasers be prohibited from use on children and pregnant women,  that they be subjected to “principles of necessity and proportionality” and that they be “inadmissible in the equipment of custodial staff in prisons or any other place of deprivation of liberty.” The Committee also urged “the State party to provide more stringent instructions to law enforcement personnel entitled to use electric discharge weapons, and to strictly monitor and supervise their use through mandatory reporting and review of each use.”

Prisons, the Death Penalty, and Juvenile Justice

The CAT also addressed the death penalty, numerous systemic human rights violations within the prisons and jails of the U.S., and juvenile justice.  After hailing the abolishment of the death penalty in six states since its last report, the Committee condemned the torturous suffering that has accompanied numerous executions across the country, referencing the use of untested lethal drug cocktails, and called for a moratorium on the death penalty and commutation of death sentences  “with a view to abolish” this draconian measure. It also condemned sexual and other related prison violence, particularly against LGBTI and mentally disturbed prisoners, the proliferation of deaths in custody, the shackling of pregnant prisoners, and the use super max prisons and other forms of extended solitary confinement. It also recommended the prohibition of solitary confinement for juveniles and the placement of juveniles in adult prisons, and the abolishment of life without parole sentences for juveniles regardless of the crime for which they were convicted. Additionally, the CAT endorsed the enhanced use of alternatives to prison.

Guantanamo and the Use of Torture

The Committee expressed “its deep concern” that the U.S. Government “continues to hold a number of individuals without charge at Guantanamo Bay detention facilities” as “enemy belligerents” whom the U.S. claims it is “entitled to hold” “until the end of the hostilities.” The CAT then reiterated that, in its view, this “indefinite detention constitutes per se a violation” of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. It cited to evidence that out of the 148 men still held at Guantanamo, only 33 have been designated for potential prosecution, in violation of international fair trial standards, and further articulated its concern that “federal courts have rejected a significant number of habeas corpus petitions.”

With regard to the conditions of confinement at Guantanamo, the Committee  “remained concerned about the secrecy surrounding conditions of confinement,” and noted  “the studies received on the cumulative effect that the conditions of detention and treatment in Guantanamo have had on the psychological health of detainees.” It cited the nine deaths in Guantanamo during the period under its review, including seven suicides, repeated suicide attempts, and the “recurrent mass hunger strike protests by detainees over indefinite detention and conditions of detention.” Additionally, it condemned the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes, sometimes reportedly administered in an unnecessarily brutal and painful manner, which “constitutes ill-treatment in violation of the Convention.”

The Committee called on the U.S. Government to

  • Cease the use of indefinite detention without charge or trial for individuals suspected of terrorism-related activities;
  • Ensure that detainees held at Guantanamo who are designated for potential prosecution be charged and tried in ordinary federal civilian courts;
  • Immediately release any other detainees who are not to be charged or tried;
  • Provide access to detainees and their counsel to all evidence used to justify the detention;
  •  Investigate allegations of detainee abuse, including torture and ill-treatment, appropriately prosecute those responsible, and ensure effective redress for victims;
  •  Improve the detainees’ situation so as to persuade them to cease the hunger strike;
  •  Put an end to force-feeding of detainees on hunger strikes as long as they are able to make informed decisions;
  •  Invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Guantanamo Bay detention facilities, with full access to the detainees, including private meetings with them, in conformity with the terms of reference for fact-finding missions by the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council;
  • declassify torture evidence, in particular Guantanamo detainees’ accounts of torture; and
  •  ensure that all victims of torture are able to access a remedy and obtain redress, wherever acts of torture occurred and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim.

And, most significantly, the CAT reiterated its earlier recommendation, set forth at CAT/C/USA/CO/2, para 2 that “the State party should close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, as instructed in section 3 of Executive Order 13492 of 22 January 2009.”

The Committee also decried the lack of prosecutions for, and transparency about, numerous apparent criminal acts, including homicides and enforced disappearances, committed by CIA operatives, the U.S. military, and other U.S. agents at foreign locations including in Afghanistan, and as part of the U.S. Government’s rendition program.  It condemned the continued use of sleep and sensory deprivation, including blindfolds, goggles, and earmuffs, as interrogation techniques. It also called for an absolute bar to torture in all forms and circumstances, including where terrorism is alleged, and for the “declassification and prompt public release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation programme with minimal redactions.”

The Michael Brown case

Despite a compelling closed door presentation by Michael Brown’s parents, the CAT did not expressly mention the unjustified shooting of Michael Brown in its Report. When queried about this omission, a Committee member stated that the CAT “has to respect the decision” of authorities not to prosecute Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. However, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, in response to the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision, issued a statement which articulated a “deep concern” about U.S. racism and its connection to law enforcement violence:

I am deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of young African Americans who die in encounters with police officers, as well as the disproportionate number of African Americans in U.S. prisons and the disproportionate number of African Americans on Death Row. It is clear that, at least among some sectors of the population, there is a deep and festering lack of confidence in the fairness of the justice and law enforcement systems. I urge the US authorities to conduct in-depth examinations into how race-related issues are affecting law enforcement and the administration of justice, both at the federal and state levels.

On this, the 74th annual International Human Rights Day, it is well past time for U.S. and local governmental officials to heed the recent findings of the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the urgings of the High Commissioner by implementing the systemic changes that the Committee has so powerfully recommended in its Report. To continue to ignore the problems that the CAT has identified and the remedies it suggests will doom people of color here and abroad to further racist law enforcement violence and the continuation of a fundamentally unjust criminal justice system.