No tool of oppression is more powerful than summary execution. Around the globe, killings by security forces without judge or jury serve to silence dissent, quell undesirable religious practices, and force compliance with unjust laws. Extra-legal killings deprive the individual of life, without charge or sentence. But unlawful killings coupled with lack of accountability do more. They impart a powerful and intentional lesson upon those who live: stay in line or face the consequences.
Such is the case in the United States today. Slave codes and Jim Crow have given way to driving-while-Black. But today’s parents of Black children still give “the talk” to their offspring in an attempt to keep them on the living side of unwritten white supremacist rules. Will every Black driver be killed in a traffic stop? Far from it. But is every Black driver conscious of where, when, and how they drive? Absolutely. And will there be accountability for every potentially unlawful death of a Black person in an officer-involved killing? Not in our current system.
Back in the 1980s, a small group of Minnesota lawyers was concerned about the lack of accountability for the 1983 political assassination of Benigno Aquino in the Philippines and many other suspected unlawful deaths happening in the world. At the time, no international standards required governments to carry out investigations of suspected unlawful deaths.
Knowing that effective investigation is key to establishing responsibility and holding perpetrators accountable, they set out standards adopted by the United Nations. In 1989, the standards were incorporated into the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. Guidelines for death investigations followed in the 1991. Today those guidelines are known around the globe as the Minnesota Protocol.
The Minnesota Protocol has guided investigations throughout the world, including in Rwanda, Bosnia, and East Timor. I can also tell you about the Minnesota Protocol’s impact from my personal, in-the-field experience. In Peru, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told me proudly that they used the Minnesota Protocol in their work exhuming mass graves. These standards are clear, unequivocal, and provide a roadmap for ensuring both individual and systemic accountability. That they have yet to be enacted into law in the state whose name they bear is a testament to American exceptionalism, systemic racism, and an enduring failure to acknowledge the human rights violations in our own backyard.
Minnesota must prevent the arbitrary deprivation of life, including through an appropriate framework of laws, regulations, precautions, and procedures. It must investigate potentially unlawful death, ensure accountability, and remedy violations. Family members of victims have the right to equal and effective access to justice; to adequate, effective, and prompt reparation; to recognition of their status before the law; and to have access to relevant information concerning the violations and relevant accountability mechanisms. Full reparation includes restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, guarantees of non-repetition, and satisfaction. Satisfaction includes government verification of the facts and public disclosure of the truth, an accurate accounting for of the legal violations, and sanctions against those responsible for the violations.
Holding individuals accountable is essential to ending impunity for extra-legal killings. But guilty verdicts alone will not bring justice for the evils of systemic racism.
Jennifer Prestholdt is deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights. She served on the legal working group of the international drafting committee for the 2016 update to the Minnesota Protocol.
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