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The CERD Treaty: Another Tool in the Fight Against Police Violence

January 5, 2016

Co-Director, Voting Rights Project

Fifty years ago in December 1965, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).  Countries that ratify the treaty must take affirmative steps to “prohibit and eliminate” racial discrimination on all levels of society including federal state and local.  In other words, nations are required to do more than just prevent discrimination. Twenty-nine years after adoption, the U.S. ratified the treaty in 1994.  International law imposes obligations on nations to discharge their duties under the treaties they ratify.

The U.S. participates in periodic reviews of its compliance with the treaty.  Importantly, the review process allows civil society to provide shadow reports presenting alternative perspectives on their country’s compliance with the treaty’s obligations.  During the most recent U.S. review in 2014, the CERD committee asked the United States to report back in one year on actions it had taken to address the brutality and excessive force of law enforcement.  This request reflected the urgent need to act on these issues that had been continuously communicated to the Committee by civil society.

In its one-year response to the Committee in 2015, the U.S. reported that “federal, state and local authorities take vigilant action to prevent use of excessive force by law enforcement and to hold accountable persons responsible for such use of force.”  Yet, the indictment of the police officer who shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, came 13 months after the killing and only after a judge ordered the release of the video showing the killing.  The many protests against a system that results in an alarming number of police involved in shootings illustrate the public’s determination to hold the government to its own standard.

Since the August 2014 review, there have been several high profile killings by the police including Walter Scott in South Carolina, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.  According to the website killedbypolice.net, at the time of this writing, 1,159 persons have been killed by the police in 2015.  Astonishingly, there is no reliable data about the number of police shootings that involve African Americans or other minorities.

Additionally, the government needs to speak in one voice.  James Comey, director of the FBI, has endorsed the so-called Ferguson Effect – the idea that intense public scrutiny has resulted in police officers’ reluctance to fight crime as their actions may be videotaped and subjected to public backlash.  Meanwhile, Attorney General Loretta Lynch  and Deputy Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta have acknowledged the need for improved community engagement and transparency to overcome the “devastating effect of mistrust” between citizens and the police.  Until the public, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, experience the effects of vigorous government reform, including a public discussion and implementation of the 59 recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the enduring trust of the police by those who have historically bared the brunt of police violence will continue.

The Lawyers’ Committee convenes the Civil Rights Coalition on Police Reform to advocate for reforms that create an environment in which the police do not “shoot first and think later” as decried by Justice Sotomayor in her dissent after a majority of the Supreme Court found that a police shooting did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable force.

For 50 years, the CERD treaty has provided a forum for civil society to both praise and censure their country’s efforts at combatting all forms of racial discrimination.  The review process within the treaty serves to highlight issues at the forefront of national debates. For example in asking the U.S. to report within a year of review its response to police shootings, the CERD provided an additional opportunity for advocates to hold the government accountable.  All who are working to address the significant problem of excessive use of force by police, particularly against racial and ethnic minorities should read the U.S. government’s follow up report and use it as an additional tool for holding the government accountable.  This is just one of the ways that the CERD treaty can be used in domestic advocacy.

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