Monday, April 2, 2018

Guns and Human Rights: US Violates International Human Rights Law

Continuing the discussion on Gun Violence and Human Rights are guest bloggers Professor Leila Nadya Sadat and Fellow Madaline George discussing the U.S. government's failure to act on gun violence as a violation of international human rights obligations.

By: Professor Leila Nadya Sadat and Fellow Madaline George, Harris World Law Institute, Washington University in St. Louis

 Gun Violence in the United States

 The United States is in crisis. Gun violence has reached epidemic proportions, with 96 people dying from gun-related injuries every day and more than 33,000 people dying annually: 60.5% from suicide, 35.9% from homicide, 1.3% from legal intervention, and 1.6% from unintentional (accidental) deaths. Mass shootings happen with alarming frequency -- in schools, at concerts, in churches, and at theaters, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty.

The nearly 300 school shootings in the United States since 2013 are especially problematic. They victimize a young and captive population, as most children are legally required to attend school and shootings have occurred in state-operated public schools. On February 14, 2018, a nineteen-year-old gunman killed seventeen people in his former high school in Parkland, Florida, leading to a public outcry and renewed demands for legislative action. Yet government authorities have not been particularly responsive: the Florida legislature refused to consider an assault weapons ban just days later and although one week after the shooting President Trump advocated for gun control measures, less than two weeks later, he changed his mind.

This crisis has created a hemisphere-wide pandemic as well. Approximately 213,000 guns are smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border each year. And from 2014 to 2016, 50,133 U.S.-sourced guns were recovered in criminal investigations across fifteen American States. Over 70% of guns recovered by Mexican law enforcement since 2007 have been traced to the United States, while in the Bahamans and Jamaica, the rate rises to 80-90%. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that easy access to guns was a major contributing factor to Latin America’s 2010 gun-related homicide rate exceeding the global average by over 40%.

The United States is an extreme outlier in terms of gun violence. We know from other countries, and the differences between U.S. states, that gun control laws work. Australia has not had a single mass shooting since implementing the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) in 1996 and now has nine times fewer gun deaths per 100,000 people than the United States. The United Kingdom adopted two firearm laws in 1997, including a ban on personal handguns. The U.K. now has about 6.5 guns per 100 people, juxtaposed to the U.S.’s nearly 1:1 ratio. And compare the 11,004 gun-related homicides in the United States in 2016 to just 26 fatalities in England and Wales. The evidence that stricter gun control laws result in fewer deaths, and of the correlation between reduced gun ownership and reduced gun violence, is found elsewhere too, in Japan, Switzerland, and Israel, just to name a few. This is true at the state level as well: U.S. states with stricter gun laws have lower levels of gun violence.

“Gun rights” advocates argue that the Second Amendment prohibits the adoption of tighter gun laws, yet even after District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010), sensible gun regulations can be adopted. The federal courts have already sustained state assault weapons bans and other regulations of firearms. Nonetheless, in spite of climbing fatality rates, federal gun laws have become increasingly lax, with the federal Assault Weapons Ban expiring in 2004. The federal government has also prevented the Center for Disease Control from conducting gun violence research, and a “Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act” was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2017, requiring concealed carry permits issued in one state to be honored by all U.S. states. The combined effect of lax federal and heterogeneous state gun control laws exposes U.S. citizens to a high risk of gun violence and death.

Enter International Human Rights

Because “human rights begins at home,” the Harris Institute launched the Gun Violence and Human Rights Project following the 2017 Las Vegas massacre to re-direct the conversation on U.S. gun violence away from the gun rights of the shooters and towards the human rights of the victims.

International human rights law imposes specific obligations on States to protect their citizens. Our project’s initial research suggests that the failure of the U.S. government to exercise due diligence with respect to preventing and reducing gun-related violence violates its obligations under international treaties ratified by the United States as well as customary international law.

U.N. bodies have expressed concern about the human rights issues raised by the gun violence epidemic for several years. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report detailing the human rights concerns associated with the private purchasing, possession and use of guns, finding that “[f]irearms-related violence and insecurity […] pose direct risks to the rights to life, security and physical integrity, and also affect other civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights such as the rights to health, education, an adequate standard of living and social security and the right to participate in cultural life.”

As a member of the Organization of American States, the United States is required to respect and guarantee the rights protected in the OAS Charter and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, including the rights to life, to health, to education, and to take part in the cultural life of the community. On February 27, 2018, the Harris Institute presented its initial findings to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and requested that the Commission urge the United States to adopt international best practices with respect to the sale and regulation of firearms, hold a thematic hearing with survivors, families of victims, and representatives of impacted communities, and conduct a study on school shootings.

The Institute is now considering U.S. obligations under other international human rights treaties  including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Torture Convention, and the Convention on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Human Rights Committee has already found that “the obligation [of the U.S.] to effectively protect also requires efforts to curb violence that include the continued pursuit of legislation requiring background checks for all private firearm transfers.” In addition, given the public health crisis posed by firearms in the United States, the World Health Organization may be concerned as well.


In short, there is a robust international framework applicable to the U.S. gun violence crisis. Our preliminary findings suggest that there is no doubt that this epidemic deprives U.S. citizens of their fundamental human rights due to the epic failure of the government to protect them.

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You make a convincing case for US withdrawal from the United Nations and other international organizations

Posted by: Vern Dennis | May 6, 2018 5:48:13 AM

It may be helpful for readers to recall that the United States was instrumental in the drafting of many of those instruments and the creation of the United Nations following the Second World War. We had lost an estimated 415,000 of our citizens’ lives fighting in yet another war, and understood that the promotion and protection of human rights was intimately related to peace. This led the U.S. government, along with its allies, to plan, draft, and embrace the UN and other international institutions. It is no accident that the first meeting to discuss the Charter was held at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington DC; that the conference establishing the UN was held in San Francisco; and that the organization is now headquartered in New York City.

The United States has benefited from the United Nations and other international institutions, which is why it has worked hard to create and support them. It is painful to see that when international law is applied to the conduct of Americans by international bodies, as opposed to foreigners, the reaction is instinctively to criticize and withdraw, rather than engage with international institutions, acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns, and work to address them. If it did this, the United States could set a positive example for other nations to follow, and enhance the legitimacy and effectiveness of those institutions. I have written about this is some of my earlier work, see An American Vision for Global Justice: .

Posted by: Leila Sadat | May 9, 2018 3:31:28 AM

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