International Unitarian Universalism

Police Killings and the United Nations

By Bruce Knotts

This post was originally sent out on April 30 via a monthly email message from Director Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations.Subscribe to the UU@UN email list.

Too often, and in too many places around the world, we see peaceful protestors and other civilians being killed by police, paramilitary, and military forces.

Murder is wrong in all its forms. When it’s committed by governments, it’s tyranny.

Extrajudicial killing is defined as when an employee of the government, police, or military, kills someone without a judicial process. Extrajudicial killing would not apply to a war situation or when the employee of the government is defending themselves.

A classic example of an extrajudicial killing is that of Osama bin Laden. He was killed by U.S. military forces and his body dropped in the ocean. According to United Nations human rights policies, after he was found and captured he should have been brought to trial and judged. That didn’t happen, making this an extrajudicial killing.

Another high-profile case of extrajudicial killing was that of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian authorities in 2018.

Oppressive governments around the world are known to carry out extrajudicial killings of labor leaders, political opponents, journalists, peaceful protestors, religious leaders, and more without any legal sanction. The UN General Assembly has on a number of occasions condemned killing by state actors without legal process.

What about police officers who kill Black men, women, and children without any legal sanction? The police who shot and killed Tamir Rice, who was alone, playing with a toy gun, or the police who killed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others?

Frequent claims by police that their use of deadly force was in self-defense are disproved by video evidence. Yet such claims so often prevent any accountability.

Do these also fit the definition of “extrajudicial killings” condemned by the United Nations? I believe they do, and the UU@UN intends to make that case at the UN in our efforts to end militarized policing globally.

We are not alone. The Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) thinks so too, as evidenced in a recent report on racism and state violence in the United States submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR is the human rights arm of the Organization of American States (OAS). All the nations in the Western Hemisphere are OAS members.

Memorials to victims of lynchings in the U.S. hang from the ceiling at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL, where text on the wall begins “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented…”

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama

While the CJA report only deals with U.S. police killings, a ruling by the IACHR would apply to all the OAS member states. This CJA report on the U.S. can and should be replicated in other countries.

Too many of us are not safe in our homes and neighborhoods. We should be able to expect that those who ride around in cars that say, “Protect and Serve” are people we can trust not to harm us. Unfortunately, especially for those who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), the police are not trusted guardians but a deadly threat. This must stop.

My aim is to get demilitarization of police globally onto the UN agenda. I plan to introduce the specific focus on the victims of police violence into a UN resolution on extrajudicial killings, thereby bringing the demilitarization of police into the UN agenda.

Conversations to gain support have already begun and will continue. We’ve spoken to civil society and faith leaders and UN senior staff. Next, we will seek out friendly UN member states.

Progress at the UN is slow. It takes time. Good networks and some luck can allow activists to break through the inertia that exists at the UN and all similar deliberative institutions.

We can address this inertia by engaging the political process at the level of city, state/province, nation, and world. We will do our part at the United Nations to end militarized policing through actions available to the United Nations.

I am eager to participate in these very difficult conversations and hopefully move the needle towards eliminating the violence that threatens our communities.

We are all responsible to engage wherever we can, to ensure that everyone everywhere can enjoy a safe and dignified life without fear.

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About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...

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