United States of America

George Floyd killing: Urgent measures are needed to prevent lasting damage to human rights and democracy

Geneva, 5 June 2020 - The senseless killing of George Floyd can be classified as an act of torture. The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the main global coalition of anti-torture organisations, calls on the United States and the international community to make accountable policing a priority to prevent further escalation of violence.

The OMCT and its SOS-Torture Network are shocked and deeply saddened by the killing of George Floyd and stand in solidarity with his family and friends, his community, and with all the other victims of police brutality across the world.

While new charges against the officers are welcome, we call on the authorities to take a full and comprehensive look at the alleged crimes committed. Based on the video materials and the information publicly available, there is strong prima facie evidence that George Floyd was tortured to death. The use of kneeling on the neck - a form of ‘positional asphyxiation’ that can create effects similar to a dry form of waterboarding - during 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while the person cries for air without meeting any reaction or alleviation of the suffering, is not only disproportionate, but points to the intentional infliction of harm defined as torture. Torture is universally banned.

It is vital for the integrity of the legal process that specialised health expertise on torture – available in the United States – is included in the investigation to determine this important dimension of the crimes committed”, said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.

The response has to go further. OMCT experience and research have shown again and again that torture and abuse are disproportionately inflicted on members of marginalized communities and are deeply grounded in structural discrimination and social exclusion. Any response to the present situation has to address those root causes.

As a global anti-torture movement, we know only too well that it is not “just a few bad apples” in the policing infrastructure. The killing of George Floyd must lead to an independent, transparent and comprehensive investigation into the structural causes of police violence as well as to systemic institutional reforms at the local, state and federal level. The OMCT calls for a review and banning of neck restraints as used in the case of Mr. Floyd, given that such practices are inherently dangerous, as evidenced in this case.

As a result of many years of work on policing issues, our Network has learnt that clear reform processes are also needed to honour and encourage the many law enforcement officers who protect constitutional and fundamental rights and who have shown over the past week their commitment against police brutality - whether in the United States or elsewhere.

The OMCT is further deeply concerned about the reports of excessive use of force by police in response to the protests that could lead to an escalation of violence getting increasingly out of hand.

Police violence was at the origin of the protest. Police accountability and genuine reform – not the militarisation of policing – are the solution. We need to focus our efforts on uniting and not on dividing our societies”, added Staberock.

The OMCT is particularly alarmed at suggestions and attempts to quell dissent and legitimate protest through military force. The right to protest is enshrined in national and international law, and it is a State obligation to ensure its enjoyment. We have seen, the world over, the devastating impact of the militarisation of law enforcement. It leads to a spiral of violence and counter-violence, gross human rights violations, including torture and impunity, and leaves a lasting damage to democratic institutions, the rule of law and whole societies. In this regard, our movement also looks with concern at the numerous reports and accounts of media intimidation, including of international media covering the events.

As a global movement fighting torture, abuse and impunity around the world, we are gravely concerned about the knock-on effects these practices will have for the protection of human rights elsewhere. We need a United States committed to human rights and the rule of law, both domestically and internationally.

The challenge of police accountability is an urgent issue for the United States. But it is not unique to it – it is a ground reality in many of our societies around the world. Over the past months, we have seen the spreading of abusive policing and ‘law enforcement through intimidation and fear’ when enforcing movement restrictions in the context of Covid-19. And we have seen an almost complete blackout of the anti-torture protection system locally and globally.

The economic effects of the Covid-19 crisis are exacerbating already existing social divides, exclusion and marginalisation - disproportionately affecting the poor and underprivileged. Unaccountable policing and human rights abuses provide a particularly dangerous cocktail for eruptions of violence, social unrest and democratic instability. The lesson we all need to learn from the United States is that the priority right now must be to ensure that law enforcement is rule of law compliant and torture free.

To make sure that every life matters, there is one order of the day: recommit to the fundamental tenets of the rule of law and policing, both in the United States of America and globally.

For more information:
Iolanda Jaquemet, OMCT Director of Communications
+41 79 539 41 06

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