George Floyd protests in Washington, D.C. in May 2020. Photo by Rosa Pineda
Mass atrocity crimes — genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — occur when civilians are targeted in an illegal, systematic and widespread way. While they can be perpetrated by non-state actors, mass atrocities are most often committed when a state’s muscle is turned against its own citizens. Jewish World Watch’s mandate is to raise awareness of these crimes at their earliest stages and do all we can to eradicate this scourge upon humanity once and for all.
In furtherance of this mission, we constantly scan the globe looking for the indicators of gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The Memorial Day murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has put in stark relief a systemic, widespread problem here in the United States and challenged many people to examine the status quo in ways they haven’t done before. It is within this context that Jewish World Watch feels a responsibility to acknowledge that some troubling indicators of mass atrocity crimes may be present in our own backyard. While we are not suggesting that mass atrocity crimes are currently underway, as people of conscience, we cannot stand idly by when even early signs of such crimes may exist. We have a duty to be aware and demand accountability even in the face of dynamics here at home.
What happened to George Floyd is known in human rights law as an extrajudicial killing — the murder of a person by governmental authorities or individuals without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process. Extrajudicial killings are one of the enumerated crimes that when committed on a systematic and widespread scale could rise to the level of crimes against humanity. Time and time again, African Americans have been disproportionately affected by police violence resulting in death.
This has led some legal scholars to argue that Black people in America constitute a persecuted group that is actively being subjected to crimes against humanity. The threshold for naming crimes against humanity is high because the egregiousness of the violations impacts not just those who perish, but all of mankind. But even though police violence against Black Americans does not yet meet the criteria of this crime, it is Jewish World Watch’s mission to be vigilant and to address these systemic rights violations with similar fervor and compassion that we bring to any international situation that causes concern and that we rally around in a preventive capacity.
Jewish World Watch was born in 2004 in response to the Darfur genocide, to stand in solidarity with Africans fleeing violence in their native Sudan, thousands of miles away. Now, protesters the world over are rallying behind Americans fighting injustice. As an organization created to combat systematic othering and the targeting of people because of who they are or what they believe, we acknowledge this critical parallel and stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This watershed moment reminds us of our shared humanity and our duty to protect the dignity of all human beings.
As a Jewish organization, we recognize that the Jewish story is connected to the plight of others subjected to violence because of the race or ethnicity to which they were born — including the Darfuris, African Americans and many others. Elie Wiesel captured this perfectly when he said, “Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” While the protests that began on May 26 and have since spread across the world have been predominantly peaceful, some in attendance have resorted to rioting and looting. We strongly condemn the latter. But the fierce law enforcement response in many cities to these protesters also raises concerns over the use of violence against people exercising their First Amendment rights. An unprecedented number of journalists have also been targeted while doing their jobs documenting the unrest. The US Press Freedom Tracker has recorded more than 300 incidents against members of the media since the beginning of the protests.
Agnes Callamard, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, has warned that U.S. security forces may be violating international law. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, she argues that under fundamental principles of international human rights law, police use of force should be guided by principles of legality, necessity, proportion, precaution and non-discrimination. “Intentionally targeting media crews, firing rubber bullets at the face or spraying gas directly at a protester whose sole ‘crime’ was to raise their hands and speak up? Those are behaviors that likely amount to violations of the law, acts of cruelty that should have no place in any police force, let alone ones in a democratic society founded on the rule of law.”
Countless mass atrocities the world over have begun with the militaristic suppression of peaceful groups who were wrongly misrepresented or scapegoated as threats to national security. In fact, almost all mass atrocities have two things in common: othering and security sector failures — when governments entrusted with the legitimate use of force abuse that power and turn it against their citizens.
The martial rhetoric toward these protests being used by the current Administration is redolent of how authoritarian regimes in countries around the world have responded to protest movements, causing alarm even among some current and former military leaders usually resistant to criticizing a commander in chief. As retired General Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tweeted, “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”
What we’re recognizing in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death is that several of the dynamics that characterize mass atrocities have been present not only in the extrajudicial killing of Black Americans but also in the security sector’s response to the protests calling for change. It is imperative that we recognize the danger of such repressive official responses and work to change the tide so that human rights and democratic principles are not further eroded.
While America is not currently in the midst of a mass atrocity situation, when it comes to dealing with systematic othering and popular unrest, there are some helpful parallels that can be drawn and lessons learned from the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention. The vicious cycle of atrocity crimes is broken by recognizing and addressing the underlying, structural causes or drivers of the violence or persecution. Rather than targeting protestors and employing inflammatory rhetoric that glorifies violence, it is critical that all national, state, and local governments exercise calm and constructively work to root out the structural causes of systemic racism, as some have already begun to do.
Jewish World Watch supports the calls for meaningful measures to ensure police accountability, to drastically reduce unnecessary arrests and the rampant use of unwarranted violence against unarmed people of color. We must not only remain steadfast in defending the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution, but we must also, as JWW has worked toward for the survivor communities abroad that we serve, invest in real support for communities in need, advocating for programs that will counter long-term structural racism in multiple sectors.
New legislation introduced Monday, June 8, by members of the Congressional Black Caucus aims to do just that. Democratic lawmakers unveiled the most sweeping police reform legislation in decades in response to the murder of George Floyd and the global protests it catalyzed. The Justice in Policing Act calls for a ban on chokeholds, a national database for police misconduct and mandated use of body cameras – all with the goal of eradicating racial injustices in the policing system. Most importantly, the bill would make it easier for civilians to hold officers accountable for abuse of power, including by moving the requisite intent behind an officer’s infringement on a person’s rights from “willful” to the lower standard of “reckless.” The bill has already garnered more than 200 co-sponsors. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, in pushing for the legislation said, “Never again should the world be subjected to witnessing what we saw on the streets of Minnesota with George Floyd.” Rep. Bass is a long-time ally of Jewish World Watch, so it comes as no surprise that her words echo the post-Holocaust rallying cry of “never again” – once more underscoring how interlinked these struggles for human dignity truly are.
Please let your representatives hear that you support this historically important legislation to protect the vulnerable here in the U.S. as ardently as we all support the survivors of genocide and mass atrocities abroad.
All copyrights for this article are reserved to this source