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USA: UN experts urge far-reaching reforms on policing and racism

26 February 2021

GENEVA (26 February 2021) – UN human rights experts* today called on the US Government to adopt wide ranging reforms to put an end to police violence, and to vigorously address systemic racism and racial discrimination.

“We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the excessive force used by American police in the context of peaceful demonstrations, and the use of lethal force against individuals who did not present a threat to life at the time of the police intervention,” said the experts.

“In this time of political change, the United States must initiate far-reaching reforms to address police brutality and systemic racism.”

In this context, the experts welcomed the recent Philadelphia Office of the City Controller report on the response to the protests following George Floyd’s killing and urge other authorities that have not done so to thoroughly assess their response to the protests and allegations of systemic and historical problems such as racism.

The Philadelphia investigation found that the City failed to sufficiently plan for the protests and that excessive force was used. It also found that inconsistent approaches were used against those protesting against police brutality versus those supporting the police. 

“In Philadelphia, as in other parts of the country where Black Lives Matter protests took place, law enforcement interventions were not limited to areas where lootings and vandalism had allegedly occurred,” the experts said. “Police officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and used pepper spray from close range against protesters, residents and bystanders indiscriminately. Tear gas canisters even landed in home yards hurting children.”

The Philadelphia report found that many of the violations were the result of a failure of leadership at the highest levels of key City departments and agencies.

“We agree forcefully with the necessity for greater accountability. The authorities at all levels must ensure that there is no impunity for any excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.”  

The experts also called for the closure of all criminal investigations and administrative proceedings against people who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right of peaceful assembly, and for the provision of adequate reparations.

The experts also expressed concern that the relevant national legal and policy frameworks allow law enforcement officers to use lethal force whenever it is deemed “reasonable”. They called for any such legal and policy frameworks, from city to federal levels, to be urgently revised to reflect established international human rights standards. “The various laws and policies governing police use of force must comply with the US international obligations, and this means they must be based on the principles of precaution, necessity and proportionality.

“The use of potentially lethal force is an extreme measure, which may be resorted to only when strictly necessary to protect life or prevent serious injury from an imminent threat,” the experts said. “Likewise, less lethal weapons must be employed only subject to strict requirements of necessity and proportionality, in situations where less harmful measures would be ineffective.”

The experts also called for a reform of the laws and policies guiding the use of non-lethal weapons. They recalled that 12 cities and five states had enacted bills banning police use of tear gas and pepper spray during protests, while a number more have pending legislation.

“So-called less-lethal weapons are still weapons,” they said. “The expanding and improperly regulated use of less-lethal weapons raise serious and dramatic concerns for the respect of the right to life and the right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment. They can kill and have killed; they can harm and wound horribly, leading to permanent disability.”

The experts urged the authorities to address the increased “militarisation” of policing. “The use of military equipment by law enforcement agencies cannot be justified. Studies have shown that the use of military gear and armored vehicles for the purposes of law enforcement has not reduced crime or increased officers’ safety,” they said. “On the contrary, when such equipment is used, officers are more likely to display violent behaviour.”

Similarly, the experts note that approximately 80 percent of arrests in the United States are for misdemeanors. “We have witnessed many police killings that have resulted from police action related to petty offences. Instead, non-serious offenses, including minor traffic violations, should be addressed through mechanisms outside the criminal legal system.  Reducing unnecessary interactions between police and community members will reduce violence and deaths,” the experts said.

Civil society organisations and social movements in Philadelphia and elsewhere have long documented racist policing practices that disproportionately target African-American communities in the city. Experts urged that “policing reforms must adopt genuine and substantive measures to dismantle systemic racism in policing, including against racial, ethnic and other minorities, by divestment from current policing budgets and reinvestment in alternative social and economic resources that are vital for the safety of these communities”.

“In all efforts to ensure public safety and equality and justice in law enforcement, communities most directly harmed by the existing institutions of policing must have meaningful opportunities to shape policing and related reforms.

“We hope that the new US administration will be able to pursue the necessary reforms with resolve, determination, and a strong political and financial commitment.”


The experts: Ms. Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (comprising Ms. Dominique Day (Chairperson) Mr. Ahmed Reid, Mr. Michal Balcerzak, Mr. Sabelo Gumedze, Mr. Ricardo A. Sunga III); Mr. Gerard QuinnSpecial Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi VouleSpecial Rapporteur on the Rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Ms. Tlaleng MofokengSpecial Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mr. Fernand de VarennesSpecial Rapporteur on minority issues; Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism; Mr. Marcos OrellanaSpecial Rapporteur on toxics and human rights; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Mr. Diego Garcia-Sayan, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food; Mr. David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mr. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Ms. Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo, Mr. Muma Malila, Mr. Seong-Phil Hong, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, Country Page – United States

For more information and media requests, please contact: Mr. Alessandro Marra (+41 22 928 93 21 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected].

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / [email protected]).

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