US admits must 'do better' on police practices

Nina Larson
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Children look at posters calling for an end to police violence in Baltimore, Maryland on May 10, 2015

Children look at posters calling for an end to police violence in Baltimore, Maryland on May 10, 2015 (AFP Photo/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

Geneva (AFP) - The United States acknowledged before the UN Monday that it has not done enough to uphold civil rights laws, following a string of recent killings of unarmed black men by police.

Speaking before the United Nations Human Rights Council, a US representative stressed the advances his country had made in establishing a range of civil rights laws since segregation ended more than half a century ago.

But a number of recent cases of police brutality against African Americans shows "we must rededicate ourselves to ensuring that our civil rights laws live up to their promise," said James Cadogan, a senior counselor in the justice department's civil rights division.

"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... challenged us to do better and to work harder for progress," he said.

The United States was undergoing a so-called Universal Periodic Review of its rights record -- which all 193 UN countries must submit to every four years.

The US delegation, headed by US ambassador to the council Keith Harper and acting US legal advisor Mary McLeod, faced a barrage of questions about police tactics and brutality as well as the disproportionate impact on minorities.

- 'Broken justice system' -

Namibia representative Gladice Pickering urged Washington to "fix the broken justice system that continues to discriminate ... despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of unarmed black men."

Black men are not the only victims.

On the sidelines of the review, Martinez Sutton gave an emotional account of last month's acquittal of the white Chicago police officer who in 2012 killed his 22-year-old sister, Rekia Boyd, who was black.

"My sister was innocent, so why isn't anybody paying for her death?" he asked reporters.

The questions from the 117 country representatives who took part in Monday's review "showed broad global concern that the US criminal justice system has deep flaws that need to be promptly addressed, particularly with regard to racial disparities," said Alba Morales of Human Rights Watch.

Cadogan said the country was facing the problem, and was intent on holding abusive officers to account.

The half-day review in Geneva came after the US justice department on Friday launched a federal civil rights investigation into whether police in Baltimore have systematically discriminated against residents, following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody last month.

Six police officers have been charged in connection with Gray's arrest and death. One faces a second-degree murder charge.

"When federal, state, local or tribal officials wilfully use excessive force that violates the US Constitution or federal law, we have authority to prosecute them," Cadogan said, pointing to criminal charges brought against more than 400 law enforcement officials over the past six years.

Sutton, whose sister was killed by a Chicago officer, said he was not convinced.

Authorities "say the guilty should be punished, but I want them to show us, instead of tell us," he said.

- Abolish the death penalty -

During Monday's review, many diplomats also criticised the continued use of the death penalty in the United States.

Sweden's representative Anna Jakenberg Brinck was among many to demand a "national moratorium on the death penalty aiming at complete abolition."

The United States has seen its execution numbers drop in recent years to 35 in 2014, but still ranks fifth in the world after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, according to Amnesty International.

The issue of US counter-terrorism operations and targeted drone killings was also raised, with Pakistan's representative demanding compensation for all innocent victims of such strikes.

The review also touched on the mass surveillance brought to light by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the widespread detention of illegal immigrants and Washington's record in addressing the legacy of its "war on terror", including its failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.

Denmark's representative called for redress for "all victims of torture or ill treatment, whether still in US custody or not."

McLeod, the US legal advisor, reiterated President Barack Obama's admission that the country had "crossed the line" in allowing past cases of CIA torture, detailed in an explosive Senate report published last December.

But, she stressed that Washington had since taken steps to ensure that the country "never resorts to the use of those harsh interrogation techniques again."