A Visit from the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues

By: Ryan Brenner

"[S]ocieties that want to maintain peaceful coexistence and harmony among its citizens from various backgrounds, need to face such controversies and hold dialogue where everyone's voice can be heard and listened to, and come to a solution that pleases its people. I agree with those who stated that just because something has been in place for a long time, doesn't make it right or justified. Getting voting rights for women or abolishing slavery required revolutionary and massive questioning of traditions, status quo and their righteousness, and needed courageous individuals to carry out a persistent fight in the name of achieving equality for all." [1]

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Today, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Ms. Rita Izsák, gave a presentation to MSU law students on the international human rights implications of police killings of unarmed Black men and boys through an event hosted by the Talsky Center for Human Rights. It was a great honor to hear such a prestigious person speak and even more interesting to hear an international perspective on a domestic issue.


UN Special Rapporteurs

Before going into the contents of the presentation, an overview of what the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues is responsible for is necessary. Special Rapporteurs are independent experts that operate within the special procedures of the Human Rights Council [2]. Each Rapporteur has a mandate to address a specific theme of human rights or human rights, generally, in a specific country [2]. The mandate for the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues was initially passed in 2005 and renewed in 2014 for a period of three years [3]. Specifically, this Rapporteur addresses the rights of minority communities worldwide by collecting information from a variety of sources on potential violations, issuing communications to States regarding violations and implementation of human rights treaties, writing annual reports, and undertaking country visits [3]. Thus, Ms. Izsák’s work deals extensively with issues like the widespread police killings of unarmed Black men and boys.


International Human Rights Law

First, Ms. Izsák addressed the legal regime surrounding the human rights of minority populations. Most specifically, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the United States has ratified, provides: “States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone . . . ” [4]. This includes “[t]he right to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual group or institution” and “[t]he right to equal treatment before the tribunals and all other organs administering justice” [4]. More generally, sources like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [5] and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [6] (which is ratified by the United States) protect human rights like the right to life and right to a fair trial.


Excessive Force Against Black Men And Boys

The Current Situation In The United States 

The discussion then shifted to the numerous studies highlighting racial profiling and the use of excessive force against Black men and boys [7]. Specifically, Ms. Izsák walked through the entire criminal process noting the many disparities between Black and White suspects: increased likelihood of being killed by the police, higher arrest rates, lengthier pretrial detentions, less likelihood of posting bail, less access to legal counsel, lower quality of legal counsel, less knowledge of legal rights, lower comprehension of English (paired with less access to translation services), more likely to receive prison sentence over probation, longer prison sentences, and more likely to be sentenced to death over life in prison. Regarding representation, Black people are underrepresented in police forces, prosecution offices, and juries. 

Application Of International Human Rights Law

Under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, racial discrimination is defined as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life” [4]. The disparate treatment of Black men and boys (and women and girls as well) addressed above negatively impacts Black people’s ability to enjoy basic human rights on an equal footing with White people. This, then, is a violation of human rights.

Upon reaching this conclusion, the presentation turned to an open-forum-style dialogue with the audience to discuss some possible solutions. Comments addressed such topics as the need for better accountability of police actions, the need for truly independent investigations of police killings, and the work of the Black Lives Matter movement to highlight these issues and attract national attention. From an international law perspective, there was also an interesting discussion about why civil rights issues in the United States are limited to Constitutional evaluations at the exclusion of international law; racial discrimination in the United States is rarely framed as a violation of human rights. As mentioned by Professor Susan Bitensky, director of the Talsky Center, international human rights law is a powerful tool that can be used consecutively with other legal, political, and grassroots efforts to bolster the fight to end racial discrimination.

[1]  Rita Izsák, FACEBOOK (Oct. 24, 2013), https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=525144910900343&id=146877628727075.
[2] Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, UNOHCR, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx (last visited Nov. 2, 2015).
[3] Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues,  UNOHCR, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Minorities/SRMinorities/Pages/SRminorityissuesIndex.aspx (last visited Nov. 2, 2015). 
[4] International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Mar. 7, 1966, 660 U.N.T.S. 195.
[5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, U.N. Doc. A/RES/217(III) (Dec. 10, 1948).
[6] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dec. 16, 1966, S. Treaty Doc. No. 95-20, 6 I.L.M. 368 (1967), 999 U.N.T.S. 171.
[7] See, e.g., US DOJ Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department (Mar. 2015).