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The ‘International Policeman’ Is Not Exempt From Justice

On July 21, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that the country’s government must cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into its war on drugs. The decision came two years after the Philippines completed its withdrawal from the Rome Statute, the governing treaty of the ICC; but in the eyes of ICC prosecutors, the court retains jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed in the years when it was a member.

“Try as they might,” Amnesty International’s Philippines Researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard said, “[Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte’s administration cannot stop the wheels of justice.”

The ICC is reaching the final stage of its investigation—launched in February 2018—even as Duterte is “openly taunting“ the international community about his “war on drugs.” On July 26, police shot and killed two activists before they could finish spray-painting the words “Down with Duterte” onto a bridge ahead of the president’s annual State of the Nation address in Manila. On the same day, U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts led ten of his Democratic colleagues to denounce Duterte’s “extrajudicial, violent, and inhumane” drug war.

Often missing from discussions of authoritarianism on the archipelago is the formative role the United States has played in fueling that repression. In 1901, following the Philippine-American War, the U.S. occupation government established the Philippine Constabulary, a predecessor to today’s national police force. The U.S.-imposed government desired a way to police ordinary crime and the Philippine pro-independence movement alike, so the Constabulary “blurred the line between police and military.” As a result, the suppression of drugs and vice has never been separate from the work of counterterrorism and espionage. The atrocities committed by regimes such as Duterte’s are direct legacies of U.S. involvement in local crime policy, as historians including Stuart Schrader, Micol Seigel, and Marisol LeBrón continue to show.

The Philippines is hardly alone in this regard. Wherever the United States has played “global policeman,” American police advisors have also very literally put boots on the ground. From the colonial Philippines to neocolonial Vietnam and Iraq, U.S. policymakers formed new, “modern” police forces to establish order, root out dissent, and inculcate loyalty. In the 1960s, the CIA assisted Indonesia’s security forces in an anti-Communist purge that killed approximately one million civilians. These Cold War lessons in turn inspired the militarized police tactics of the so-called War on Crime and later the War on Drugs, which locked up record numbers of disproportionately poor and Black men in struggling U.S. cities. The “global policeman” would now become the world’s top jailer, too.

U.S. policing cannot be separated from U.S. military power abroad. Confronting the violence of policing—whether in Minneapolis or Manila—requires an international perspective.

A new report challenges the United States’ tendency to siphon local policing tactics from the global arena. In late April, after months of research and testimony, the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States, formed by legal experts from 11 countries, released its findings. The commission’s report argues that torture, beatings, killings, and gender-based violence are systemic to U.S. law enforcement, and that this pattern “amounts to crimes against humanity.”

The authors took inspiration from last year’s anti-racism protests, joining the call for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other victims of what they termed “police murders.” However, the report goes beyond demanding the prosecution of individual officers or the passage of national police reform. Among its recommendations, the commission calls on the ICC to investigate the responsible U.S. police officials.

Upon its release, experts in international law began to criticize the report as naïve and misguided. “Your latest instalment of ‘terrible things the #ICC does not have jurisdiction over’—police killing of Black Americans version,” tweeted Kevin Jon Heller, a law professor at the University of Copenhagen. A headline in Newsweek declared, “Independent Commission Calls U.S. Police Killings of Blacks ‘Crimes Against Humanity,’” before adding, “But Lacks Enforcement Authority.”

It’s true that the United States is not party to the ICC (the report also calls for it to join). Yet by dismissing the case against the United States on jurisdictional grounds, these critics reveal their own misunderstanding of international law. Rather than as a fixed arrangement of courts and laws, we should imagine the philosophy of human rights as a flexible tool for justice, as past social movements have. While it’s highly unlikely the ICC will intervene in this case, there are significant precedents in which activists used international law to address institutional racism outside of a courtroom.

In the 1950s, the U.S. federal government’s decision to back desegregation was motivated in part by its global image, as historian Mary Dudziak revealed in her book Cold War Civil Rights. In 2021, the State Department no longer worries about Soviet propaganda about lynchings. But since Floyd’s murder, China has worked to exploit U.S. racism while fighting for influence in Africa and Latin America. As one of the independent commission’s coordinator pointed out, “The United States does not want to be condemned before the United Nations, or before the international community.”

Black activists in the U.S. have long understood this. Since World War II, civil rights formations as ideologically different as the NAACP and Black Panther Party have leaned on international opinion to serve their causes. In the Civil Rights era, this meant overthrowing Jim Crow—which enshrined Black people’s status as second-class citizens under U.S. law. The country had defeated Nazi Germany and global fascism, while refusing to protect the rights of its own minorities. As Howard University professor Rayford Logan once remarked, if the nation intended to spread democracy, “it might not be a bad idea to have some democracy to defend.”

Nothing made this hypocrisy clearer than the United States’ rampant disregard for Black life. On Dec. 17, 1951, the Black American activist William Patterson arrived at the United Nations General Assembly, which was then located in Paris. Under his arm he held a volume bearing the title “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People.” To call it a petition was perhaps misleading: The almost 250-page document was an extensive catalogue of human rights abuses, documented in devastating detail. In the preceding five years, Patterson estimated, some 32,000 Black Americans died each year due to being denied the jobs, health care, education, and housing afforded to white people. The petition also exposed inequality in the U.S. criminal justice system, including “police murders of Black men.” By subjecting its own citizens to “premature death,” the United States was committing genocide, according to the petition. If Patterson’s own government wouldn’t act, perhaps the U.N. would.

The case of “We Charge Genocide” holds an important lesson for human rights advocates today. When Patterson landed in Paris, the United States had not yet ratified the Genocide Convention (it did so only in 1988). This was not an oversight on the part of the petition’s supporters, however. Its signatories were some of the country’s most brilliant thinkers of the period, including writer, sociologist, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; legendary actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson; and Charlotta Bass, the first Black woman to run for the vice presidency, which she did in 1952. Robeson was set to deliver the petition until the State Department confiscated his passport.

The individuals behind “We Charge Genocide” understood that the United States was not bound to abide by the Genocide Convention. But there would be no point in taking their case to the U.S. legal system, the very courts which every day failed to uphold civil rights. By taking the case to the U.N., Patterson was “lengthening the battlefield,” as his biographer Gerald Horne wrote. The petition addressed the U.N. General Assembly “not as a court of law” but rather “as the conscience of mankind.”

Ultimately, U.S. officials managed to block any discussion of “We Charge Genocide” at the General Assembly. Upon Patterson’s return, the State Department forced him to surrender his passport. But the official campaign to neutralize Robeson and Patterson’s efforts reveals how effective the petition might have been at spoiling the United States’ image as a land of freedom and equality.

Although “We Charge Genocide” failed, other activists have since succeeded by following in the path it established. In May 2015, Chicago became the first city in the United States to legislate reparations for racially motivated police violence to survivors and their families. Between 1972 and his suspension in 1991, Jon Burge, Chicago Police Department (CPD) detective and later commander, oversaw the torture of more than 120 people to obtain false confessions. Reparations include $5.5 million for survivors, as well as mental health counseling, job training, and a college education for both survivors and their immediate family. Of special interest to historians, the legislation also established a permanent public memorial and mandated that the history of police abuse be taught in the city’s schools. With this legislation, Chicago became a model for what a Truth and Reconciliation Commission might look like in the United States.

This victory was a long time coming. For years, community members on the city’s South and Southwest sides had made Burge’s torture regime known. Rather than investigate these repeated misconduct allegations, the CPD instead promoted Burge to the rank of commander. The department finally fired Burge in 1993, after an internal investigation confirmed the allegations.

With Burge’s firing, politicians hoped the scandal would just go away. Instead, people organized. They wrote letters, held rallies, and uplifted survivors’ names. But beyond the affected communities, few seemed to care. In 2000, journalist John Conroy captured this dismal outlook: “I found I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably someone we like who lives in another country.” Yet fifteen years later, the city agreed to provide millions of dollars in reparations for torture survivors. What changed?

According to historian Toussaint Losier, the breakthrough can only be explained by activists’ turn in the 2010s toward a strategy of appealing to international human rights norms. Having seemingly exhausted their options in local government, they took their case to the international community. In 2014, eight young Chicago activists journeyed to Geneva to present a report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Using the name We Charge Genocide, the group consciously followed in the footsteps of Patterson. The following year, Chicago passed the reparations ordinance. “We tried a little bit of everything,” lawyer Standish Willis concluded. “They simply would not do it until we went international.”

The Chicago reparations campaign shows what is possible when human rights channels are used creatively. We should read the case for international intervention in U.S. policing in the same light: as the most recent attempt to “lengthen the battlefield,” as “We Charge Genocide” once did.

Media outlets continue to maintain a double standard when it comes to state violence committed in the United States—including by police departments. Corruption, extrajudicial killings, and the persecution of a racial minority are all understood to be problems found in other parts of the world. But unaccountability is endemic to U.S. policing. In cash-strapped municipalities such as Ferguson, Missouri, police shake down the poor to fund basic services. Police routinely assault journalists, just as they do in Russia, Egypt, or China. As sociologist James Wahutu observes, American journalists hesitate to call these actions what they are: systemic human rights abuses.

Merely invoking human rights will not solve the problems of policing. Nor is it sufficient to point out the American roots of police violence in the Philippines or elsewhere. But at a moment when U.S. cities are more open than ever to addressing the power of their police, the lessons of human rights activists are invaluable. The global history of policing challenges us to imagine a more just and equitable future beyond the strictures of local, federal, and international law as they exist. As the abolitionist organizer and intellectual Mariame Kaba wrote after the passing of Chicago’s reparations legislation, “Change is too often slow. But sometimes we do win.”

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