The UN Just Issued a Scathing Critique of America's Justice System

Source: AP
Source: AP

As protests continue across the country in response to the grand jury decision in Ferguson last week, the UN's torture watchdog has a clear message for the United States: America's criminal justice system is in desperate need of repair. 

A new report from the United Nations Committee Against Torture released Friday expressed "deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals," as well as "the alleged difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses."

The report, the panel's first review of America's record on preventing torture since 2006, called on the U.S. federal government to fully investigate and prosecute police brutality and shootings of unarmed black youth.

"We recommend 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," said panel member Alessio Bruni in a statement. Bruni noted in particular "reported current police violence in Chicago especially against African-Americans and Latino young people." According to the report, 20 investigations had been opened since 2009 into systematic police abuses and that more than 330 police officers had been prosecuted for brutality.

It's a clear message: In the eyes of the UN — the international body that, though often ineffective and inconsistent, sets the standard for human dignity and decency — American police brutality is cruel and unusual punishment, the equivalent of torture.

And the United States has an epidemic on its hands.

Source: AP

But it's not just police brutality. The condemnation of police brutality against unarmed black individuals may resonate deeply with some Americans who see Michael Brown's death as a symptom of a larger problem with U.S. law enforcement, exemplified by the deaths of Eric Garner before him and Tamir Rice after.

But this is just one small section of the report, which deeply criticizes the U.S. for counter-terrorism methods, police brutality, immigration policies, sexual assault in the military and other "subjects of concern." 

The panel also decried "excruciating pain and prolonged suffering" for prisoners during "botched executions" — for which 2014 was a banner year in the U.S. — as well as frequent rapes of inmates and extensive use of solitary confinement, as well as "numerous reports" of police brutality and excessive use of force against people from minority groups, immigrants and homosexuals and racial profiling.

And while the panel welcomed President Obama's moves to ban torture, the New York Times notes that the committee decried the inclusion of "enhanced interrogation" techniques in Army operations manuals, the continued operation of secret detention facilities by the CIA, and the "draconian system of secrecy" surrounding detainees at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which remains open despite pledges from Obama to shut the facility down.

You can browse the entire report below:

Why it matters: The UN, of course, can't really affect change. To imagine the St. Louis County Police Department taking marching orders from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to imagine the impossible. But the UN report confirms what many Americans have suspected long before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson: that our justice system is fundamentally flawed, from the structural treatment of minorities to the respect for human dignity, regardless of race. 

But Americans are paying attention. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that Americans of all stripes — Democrats and Republicans, young people and old, Hispanics and whites — increasingly believe that minorities are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. 


While a majority of seniors and Republicans still think the two groups (whites and minorities) are treated equally, each category showed a significant uptick in the number who see racial bias as a systemic feature of the U.S. justice system.

So what does this mean? It means that many Americans are finally starting to come to terms with the institutional racism that plagues the country — and if the past week of racially-tinged unrest in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision has been any indication, they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.

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Jared Keller

Jared Keller is the former director of news at Mic.

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