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Police in riot gear surround protesters in Baltimore, following the police killing of Freddie Gray. (Photo: Arash Azizzada/cc/flickr)

Police in riot gear surround protesters in Baltimore, following the police killing of Freddie Gray. (Photo: Arash Azizzada/cc/flickr)

From Drones Abroad to Police Brutality at Home, UN Slams US Human Rights Record

With particular focus on police brutality, Human Rights Council member states issue scathing critique

Lauren McCauley

The United States' human rights record faced fierce criticism on Monday during a hearing of the United Nations Human Rights Council, when a panel of more than 100 international leaders voiced concern over violations spanning from police brutality and the continued use of the death penalty to the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison.

According to those present at the hearing in Geneva, Switzerland, the subject of police brutality against people of color and, more broadly, discrimination within the U.S. criminal justice system dominated the critique. Monday marked the United States' second Universal Periodic Review, a process created by the Human Rights Council to peer-review other member states.

"I'm not surprised that the world's eyes are focused on police issues in the U.S.," Alba Morales, who investigates the U.S. criminal justice system for the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. "There is an international spotlight that's been shone [on the issues], in large part due to the events in Ferguson and the disproportionate police response to even peaceful protesters."

As Morales notes, the focus of the international delegates echoed the concerns of thousands of U.S. citizens who in recent months have expressed outrage over what they say is a racist and discriminatory system of justice.

Other areas of concern raised by UN member states included the "failure to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, the continued use of the death penalty, the need for adequate protections for migrant workers and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. Member states also called on the U.S. to end child labor, human trafficking and sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women and to lift restrictions on the use of foreign aid to provide safe abortion services for rape victims in conflict areas," Al Jazeera reports.

In addition, Pakistan Ambassador to the UN Zamir Akram raised issue with the illegal use of armed drones, calling for the U.S. to compensate innocent victims of drone strikes. 

Morales, writing at Human Rights Watch, notes that at least 36 of the 117 nations present criticized the continued use of the death penalty, with many raising concern over the disproportionate number of African Americans given capital sentences.

"These two issues – police brutality and the death penalty – represent, in some ways, very different ends of the criminal justice continuum in the U.S.", Morales writes. "Very few in the U.S. will ever be charged with a capital crime, while millions each year come into contact with police. In both cases, sadly, the U.S. has a lot of work to comply with international human rights standards."

In prepared remarks in anticipation of the critique, James Cadogan, senior counselor to the assistant attorney general, told the Council that recent deaths of innocent Black citizens at the hands of police highlight the need to "rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise."

"The tragic deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina have renewed a longstanding and critical national debate about the even-handed administration of justice: these events challenge us to do better and to work harder for progress – through both dialogue and action," Cadogan said.

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