Demonstrators outside a church in St Louis, Missouri protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown, August 12, 2014
Geneva (AFP) - A UN watchdog body took the United States to task Wednesday over continued discrimination of minorities, amid heightened tensions in the country after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination interrogated US officials in Geneva about a raft of issues, including discrimination of minorities at different levels of the criminal justice system, unequal access to education and harsh treatment of non-citizens.
Committee vice chairman Noureddine Amir expressed concern at the large overrepresentation of African Americans among people who are "arrested, charged, convicted, incarcerated and sentenced to life without parole, especially for non-violent offences, as well as sentenced to death".
He also slammed "racial profiling" by police and lamented "reports of abusive conduct and excessive use of force by law enforcement agents against persons belong to ethnic or racial minorities".
The review by the committee's 18 independent experts, which all UN members must undergo periodically, began just days after a police officer shot an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, in a Missouri suburb, sparking a riot.
The 24-member US delegation was set to answer questions Thursday, but delegation head and ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva Keith Harper emphasised in his opening statement his country's dedication to fighting discrimination.
The United States is a "vibrant, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural democracy", said Harper, who himself is a Native American.
He stressed the great advances the United States has made in recent decades, pointing to President Barack Obama as evidence.
"Thirty years ago, the idea of having an African American president would not have seemed possible. Today, it's reality."
Delegation member William Bell, the black mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, also hailed the progress made since he was born into the segregated South.
"I am a direct result of the initiative that was taken by our federal government to assure that all of our citizens be treated fairly and equally," he said.
- Stringent immigration laws -
But the committee pointed to a range of areas where minorities stand at a disadvantage.
Gun violence in the United States disproportionately impacts minorities, Amir said, pointing out that African Americans account for 13 percent of the population, but 50 percent of homicide victims.
Black males are reportedly seven times more likely to be shot to death than their white counterparts in the country, he said, also highlighting the proliferation in many US states of "Stand Your Ground" and other self-defence laws, used to justify the 2012 shooting in Florida of unarmed black teen, Treyvon Martin.
The UN committee, carrying out its first review of the United States since 2008, also raised concerns about the treatment of non-citizens and the enforcement of "stringent immigration laws".
Amid harsh criticism from the right of Obama for being too soft on illegal immigration and not doing enough to stem a recent flood of unaccompanied minors across the US-Mexico border, Amir pointed out that two million people had been deported since the president first took office six years ago -- "more than any other administration in the same period of time".
The committee review of the United States is scheduled to wrap up Thursday, and it will publish its findings on August 29.