International Law and Discrimination Against the African American Community in Ferguson

Ferguson Stirred Up the Past: The African-American community celebrated the presidency of Barak Obama and viewed this event as their salvation from any discrimination or segregation. Unfortunately, African Americans were disappointed as the wave of discrimination still hits them while their president is an African-American. Certainly, the most prominent discrimination act that took place is the Ferguson incident. Briefly, Michael Brown was an African-American teenager who was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who shot the standing, unarmed, 16 year-old boy six times! This crime took place in August 2014, at Ferguson, Missouri. Although Wilson claimed that Brown attacked him, by all means Wilson does not have the right neither in domestic law, nor international law, to shoot him six times. The Grand Jury was informed of the incident on August 20th; however, the verdict was pronounced on November 20th. Unbelievably, the final decision of the jury was not to indict Wilson for Brown’s murder (Woolf). This brutal incident erupted as a public opinion outcry condemning the discrimination that is being practiced against the African-Americans. It was the spark to shed the light on many other incidents such as John Crawford who was killed last year in Wal-Mart for holding a toy air rifle! Another case is Marissa Alexander who was sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison because she fired a warning bullet nearby her abusive husband (W, Charles). Discrimination against African-Americans in the U.S. took many other forms. For instance, it would be ridiculous to know that Maryland’s legislature once issued a law that prohibited any African-American from owning a dog without a license, and it permitted all whites to “shoot to kill” any dog seen with an African-American (Cramer). On the other hand, this did not apply to whites! The most recent discrimination event took place this year on 12th of April, in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, an African-American, 25 year-old man was found dead after being abusively arrested by three white policemen. When policemen approached Gray and he surrendered, they found a folding knife with him -which is legal under Maryland law. However, the policemen accused him of illegal possession of a switchblade. They handcuffed him, and he asked for an inhaler as he could not breathe, but it was to no avail. Also, when they put him in the police van, they did not secure him with a seatbelt. In the van, Gray suffered from a critical neck injury due to being handcuffed and shackled by his feet. The officers realized that Gray was in need of medical assistance more than one time, but they continued responding to calls to pick-up other arrested persons. Finally, policemen saw Gray lying on the floor of the van, they tried to talk to him but he was unresponsive. He was transported to the police station then to the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center, where he died a week later (“The timeline of Freddie Gray Arrest”). International Law is Skin-Color Blind: The question to be raised here is: What does international law have to do with such an issue? To start with, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR);adopted in the aftermath of the tragic wars that took place before 1945, states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex….” Other international human rights instruments focus on individuals, giving them full rights that guarantee a good life, regardless of their race. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination prohibits any act that constitutes a form of discrimination practiced by states or institutions in article 2.  In addition, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article 4 concerning public emergency, prohibits discrimination “…on the ground of race, colour, sex..”. Also, article 20 states that “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Furthermore, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) asserts that the rights in mentioned in the covenant are due to all humans without discrimination based on race or color. The principles of these two covenants should apply on the United States because it is a party, except the ICESCR, which the U.S. only singed but did not ratify. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action is also relevant.  Although this is a soft-law instrument, it stresses on the responsibility of all states to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms without any distinction. The principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of race, reflected in the above-mentioned declarations and soft-law instruments, is a principle of customary international law and is therefore binding on all states. However, in the United States, taking into consideration the non-ending tragic events, the assumption that international law is the bastion for white men seem to be very true (Richardson III).It is very shameful for the United States, the country that always promotes democracy, freedom and equality, to act in contradiction with international law and their own 1776 Declaration of Independence which start with: “…That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”. African-Americans are not only a different race, but also a minority group: Following the “longue durée” theory, looking at history will give us clues to understand the present.  Discrimination against blacks as a minority is a long-standing issue in the United States. The American system considered segregation lawful until recently. In other words, it legitimized the act of distinguishing between Americans as a majority and African-Americans as a minority. Indeed, this act does not go into line with the principles of international law. A question that arises here is: What is the role of international law if the domestic law veered? What happens if the domestic law violates international law? Some scholars argue that international law is more sophisticated than the national law. One reason is that international law is shaped by a wide coalition of actors and therefore it cannot be biased. Therefore, domestic legal systems should perfect their laws in compliance with international law. Moreover, international law developed its course; it is not merely about states borders and diplomatic relations anymore. It is now involved in the inter-state matters such as the rights of peoples, including minorities. The first international call for minorities’ rights was announced after World War I in the League of Nations –which the U.S. withdrew from-. The League of Nations legitimized minority rights by protecting and placing them as an international concern (Pejic). Although the term “minority” was added to the international law terminology at the time of the League of Nations, there was no attempt to define its exact meaning in any of the international conventions or declarations. Even when minorities were mentioned in a tone that was legally binding for the first time in article 27 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), they were not defined. Additionally, the rights of groups and minorities have been mentioned in the context of several bilateral and multilateral treaties (Kingsbury). Is There a Solution? Comparing discrimination in the U.S. – the events of Ferguson and Baltimore in particular – to the principles of international law is shocking. What has been done to stop the on-going discrimination against African-Americans? There is a monitoring obligation that states have to fulfill for the Human Rights Committee; states have to issue periodic reports in which they state the measures they take to perform the principles of the ICCPR, which the United States is a party to (Pejic). This procedure is more likely to be a method of encouragement for “good treatment” for minorities; it does not act as a deterrence or penalty to the ongoing discrimination trend. In the United States, violating the principles of international law took two forms; African-Americans were both a different race and a minority; they faced racial discrimination and deprivation of minority rights. Despite the efforts of the international community, until today there are still victims of discrimination in many spots of the world. Indeed, the state legislature is completely free to legislate the law it finds convenient for its vision and aim, but this law should not contradict with the vision, aim and nature of international law.

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