The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System



The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System

Part 3: U.S. Obligations Under Human Rights Treaties: CERD & CAT 2014

In August 2014, U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was assessed by the Treaty Monitoring Committee for that convention. In November 2014, the Monitoring Committee for the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) evaluated the United States’ periodic report on its observance of CAT. Both committees issued recommendations of interest to those following how the U.S. government is honoring its human rights obligations.

CERD Committee concerns and recommendations

The complete CERD Concluding Observations cover various areas impacted by discrimination, including labor, housing, health care, homelessness, education, violence against women, immigration, gun violence, hate speech and hate crimes, juvenile justice, access to legal aid, the disparate impact of environmental pollution, and Guantanamo Bay.

The Committee’s recommendations regarding racial profiling in legislation and law enforcement are of particular interest, however, as we are facing a time in which racial discrimination and bias are in the daily headlines as a result of law enforcement actions. They noted: “While recognizing the efforts made by the State party to intensify the enforcement of relevant laws, the Committee reiterates its previous concern at the brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against members of racial and ethnic minorities, including against unarmed individuals, which has a disparate impact on African Americans and undocumented migrants crossing the United States–Mexico border.”

The CERD Committee urged the U.S. government “to intensify efforts to effectively combat and end the practice of racial profiling by federal, state and local law enforcement officials, and made the following specific recommendations:

(a) Ensure that each allegation of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials is promptly and effectively investigated; that the alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions; that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available; and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation;

(b) Intensify its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials by ensuring compliance with the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, and ensure that the new CBP directive on the use of force is applied and enforced in practice;

(c) Improve the reporting of cases involving the excessive use of force and strengthen oversight of, and accountability for, inappropriate use of force; 

(d) Provide, in its next periodic report, detailed information concerning investigations undertaken into allegations of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, including the CBP, as well as their outcomes, including disciplinary or prosecutorial action taken against the perpetrator and remedies provided to victims or their families.

Legislative actions which have resulted in more restrictions on voter registration, a development in clear evidence in North Carolina, were also addressed by the CERD Committee when it asked the government to “Enforce federal voting rights legislation throughout the State party in ways that encourage voter participation, and adopt federal legislation to prevent the implementation of voting regulations which have discriminatory impact, in the light of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder…”

The CERD Committee asked the U.S. government to ratify international human rights treaties which it has only signed and further recommended that the government “continue consulting and expanding its dialogue with civil society organizations working in the area of human rights protection, in particular in combating racial discrimination, in connection with the preparation of the next periodic report and the follow-up to these concluding observations.”

CAT Committee concerns and recommendations

With the release of a U.S. Senate report on the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, including those held at Guantanamo Bay, attention in the news in early December 2014 focused on U.S. use of brutal interrogation measures which were deemed to be torture and in violation of U.S. obligations under international treaties and U.S. law.

The CAT Committee’s Concluding Observations had already noted that “a specific offence of torture has not been introduced yet at the federal level. The Committee is of the view that the introduction of such offence, in full conformity with article 1 of the Convention, would strengthen the human rights protection framework in the State party. ” They specifically recommended: “…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,” further encouraging the U.S. government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

This Committee’s recommendations also addressed a variety of areas in which human rights abuses have occurred through U.S. government actions, including extraterritoriality, counter-terrorism measures, military accountability for abuses including sexual violence within the armed forces, allegations of torture overseas, Guantanamo Bay detentions, abuses of State secrecy provisions and mutual judicial assistance, asylum protection requests at the southwestern border, immigration-related detention, solitary confinement, the death penalty.

In a section on the protection of prisoners against violence, the Committee drew attention to the fact that sexual assaults particularly affect children held in adult facilities, as well as inmates with a history of mental health problems and LGBTI individuals. Another specific area of concern regarding juvenile justice included the recommendation that all states should abolish the sentence of life imprisonment without parole for offenses committed by children under 18 years of age.

The CAT Committee also addressed racial profiling and police brutality that particularly impacts people of certain racial and ethnic groups, expressing “deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals. In this regard, the Committee notes the alleged difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses.” Responding to reports of law enforcement abuses in Chicago and after hearing testimonies by the parents of Michael Brown and other civil society human rights defenders, the Committee made recommendations that are relevant to all states:

“(a) 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;

(b) Prosecute persons suspected of torture or ill-treatment and, if found guilty, ensure that they are punished in accordance with the gravity of their acts;

(c) Provide effective remedies and rehabilitation to the victims.”

Ejim Dike, Executive Director of the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN) stated: "…it is critical that we continue to put pressure on our elected officials at every level of government, and hold them accountable for upholding the same human rights standards that they expect other nations and governments to uphold."


Information provided by Maria de Bruyn, 10 December 2014

Part 4: The United States and UN Special Procedures >>