Police Killings Challenge U.S. “Exceptionalism”

Washington DC, the evening of April 29. 2015. Activists and supporters affiliated with the #DCFerguson movement gathered in Chinatown for a march in solidarity with the Baltimore protests of the cop killing of African-American youth Freddie Gray. The DC event involved over a thousand marchers by the time it wound up in front of the White House. Credit: Stephen Melkisethian/cc by 2.0

Washington DC, the evening of April 29. 2015. Activists and supporters affiliated with the #DCFerguson movement gathered in Chinatown for a march in solidarity with the Baltimore protests of the cop killing of African-American youth Freddie Gray. The DC event involved over a thousand marchers by the time it wound up in front of the White House. Credit: Stephen Melkisethian/cc by 2.0

By Kitty Stapp
UNITED NATIONS, May 6 2015 (IPS)

Since being roundly chastised last fall by the U.N. Committee Against Torture for excessive use of force by its law enforcement agencies, the United States hasn’t exactly managed to repair its international reputation.

Fatal beatings and shootings of African American and Latino citizens, mainly men, by the police have continued seemingly unabated, with the latest being the widely publicised case of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, died Apr. 19 of spinal cord injuries in what has been ruled a homicide after being arrested for allegedly carrying an illegal pocket knife. Six officers have since been charged in his murder.”As the U.S. claims a human rights mantle and criticises others for racism, it becomes the world’s greatest hypocrite.” — Michael Ratner

The wave of cases – many caught on camera and shared via social media – have sparked a nationwide protest campaign grouped under the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.

On Nov. 28, a year after the Committee’s damning report, the U.S. must provide information on what it has done to follow up on its recommendations, which included prompt investigation and prosecution of police brutality cases and providing effective remedies and rehabilitation to the victims.

“The best way to begin to bring this racism and particular police murders to an end is by what we are seeing today: massive and militant demonstrations everywhere and shutting cities down,” Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, told IPS. “We are in a special moment that rarely occurs in this country; people are mobilised and in the streets. That is the key. Our cities cannot be governed without the consent of the governed.

“But of course there are other important elements as well. The platform the U.N. CAT offered for Blacks particularly to speak out was important, very important. It gave Michael Brown’s family an opportunity to be heard around the world as it did others. The conclusions of the committee were powerful and while the United States tried to ignore them, the world would not. The report gives international legitimacy to the protests we are seeing every day.”

Michael Brown was an unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. A grand jury refused to indict in his Aug. 9, 2014 death.

Brown’s parents testified before the U.N. committee in Geneva last year, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cited the case in condemning “institutionalised discrimination in the U.S.”

“The CAT report put pressure on the U.S. to do something and while its response was inadequate, the report’s findings can be seen as the beginning of the end for the belief both in the U.S. and abroad that the U.S. is a just society toward Blacks,” Ratner said.

“As the U.S. claims a human rights mantle and criticises others for racism, it becomes the world’s greatest hypocrite. Yes, the U.S. is the most powerful country and can ignore the U.N., but ultimately by doing so, it will be ignored.”

Ratner cited a previous instance that demonstrates how important the U.N. can be in this regard. In 1951, “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People” was submitted to the U.N. by the Civil Rights Congress and detailed the horrendous situation faced by American Blacks.

“It received huge international press. The U.S. realized that it could not call itself a democracy and claim it was better than Communist countries if racism was so embedded in its society. Three years later the Supreme Court ended school desegregation.

“While the report was not the only reason for that change, the point is that the U.N. and particularly the recent CAT committee report has pointed to serious defects in U.S. democracy and human rights. It’s hard after this report, although surely the U.S. will try, to criticise other countries’ human rights and not simply be laughed at.”

Because the U.S. is a state party to the Convention against Torture, it is regularly examined by the CAT committee. Its next report is due in November 2018, after which the date for the next review will be set. In general, these reviews happen every four or five years.

Alba Morales, a researcher for the U.S. Programme at Human Rights Watch, agrees that advocates have been able to use the international attention brought by these reports to strengthen their local work.

“Take the John Burge torture cases in Chicago, for example,” she told IPS. “Burge was a Chicago police officer commander who oversaw the torture hundreds of arrestees in that city. Chicago advocates worked for decades to obtain accountability for those acts of torture by police, and appeared before the U.N. Committee Against Torture in 2006.

“It was only after the U.N. Committee called for accountability in that case that the U.S. government took action, eventually indicting and convicting Burge of obstruction of justice. While this was the result of many years of local advocacy, the spotlight that the U.N. report shone on these cases also contributed to the outcome.”

Morales said that the United Nations can continue to welcome the voices of those directly affected by human rights violations everywhere, including in the U.S.

“The families of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis attended the last meeting of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Their testimony powerfully illustrated the racial discrimination that persists in the U.S. While none of these U.N. committees can enforce any judgements against the U.S. or any other country, having an international platform amplifies the voices of those who are working incredibly hard to improve the human rights situation in the U.S.”

Ratner noted that U.S. racial discrimination, backed by state violence, has a lengthy and deeply rooted history that dates back hundreds of years.

“Ending the police murders and brutal treatment of Black people in the United States is no easy task,” he said. “Many whites, particularly in law enforcement, are racist to the core. It is a racism that has a history since the early days of slavery and it is a racism that continues in many aspects of Black people’s lives.

“Once it was called slavery, then Jim Crow, then slavery by another name, then the new Jim Crow. Yet we all know this unequal and brutal treatment of Black people must end.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Falling Oil Prices Trigger Initial Economic Gains for Pacific Islanders

In the Pacific Islands, transportation, including cargo boats that ply the waters between islands, is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

In the Pacific Islands, transportation, including cargo boats that ply the waters between islands, is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
CANBERRA, Australia, May 6 2015 (IPS)

The recent dramatic fall in world oil prices, with Brent crude plummeting from a high of 115 dollars per barrel in June last year to around 47 dollars in January 2015, is beginning to benefit Pacific Islanders who are seeing lower prices for fuel and energy.

Although the global price per barrel inched up to 68 dollars in early May, regional experts continue to anticipate fiscal gains as the trend eases costs of government operations and service delivery.

“How and to what extent [Pacific Island governments] will be able to derive benefits from the dramatic oil price drop depends on how quickly they […] channel public spending on infrastructure and other development programmes.” — Dr. Dibyendu Maiti, associate professor at the School of Economics at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji
“There is evidence to suggest that reduced fuel costs are having some impact in all Pacific Island markets, at least through lower prices charged for fuel, but the impact on secondary markets, like food and transport, may take longer to be realised,” Alan Bartmanovich, Petroleum Adviser to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in Fiji, told IPS.

It will take time for the oil price drop to fully impact island governments and all economic sectors due to the length of supply chains and other factors, such as price fuel regulation within countries, he added.

A global oversupply of oil, due to a surge in United States production and decline in consumption driven by reduced growth in Europe and Asia, have been the main causes of the downward price trend.

The decision of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), including Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, which produces 40 percent of the world’s crude oil, to maintain its level of output has diminished the likelihood of prices soaring again quickly.

The Pacific Islands region is home to 10 million people living in 22 countries and territories totalling thousands of islands spread across 180 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean.

According to the World Bank, more than 20 percent of Pacific Islanders are unable to afford basic needs, while employment relative to population is a low 30-50 percent in Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.

Capitalising on lower oil prices will be vital to improving the lives and development outcomes of millions of people in this region, where the vast majority live in rural areas with little access to basic facilities and global job markets.

Many countries have embarked on plans to transition to renewable energy, but the region still depends heavily on fossil fuels, especially for power and transportation.

Fossil fuel imports amount to 10 percent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) and in five countries – the Cook Islands, Guam, Nauru, Niue and Tuvalu – diesel is still used for nearly all power generation.

Transporting oil long distances to small Pacific islands scattered across vast sea distances entails complex and costly supply chains. Further shipment to outer lying island provinces within countries can result in an additional 20-40 percent on the price of fuel for local consumers.

In Fiji, Maureen Penjueli, coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, a regional civil society organisation, said, “Only a month ago the people of Fiji started to enjoy the real benefits of the fall in oil prices, particularly at the gas pumps, but also for basic energy needs, such as kerosene.”

Since 2014, the price of diesel in Fiji, commonly used to fuel power generators, has dropped from 1.17 dollars to 0.82 dollars per litre in April this year.

Over the same period, the cost of kerosene has fallen from 1.09 dollars to 0.62 dollars per litre.

“The cost of kerosene coming down is significant as this benefit trickles right down to rural and urban areas where most people are dependent on it as a source of energy for cooking,” Penjueli continued.

The trend is welcomed in the region after soaring oil prices from 2002-2008 and the global financial crisis intensified fiscal pressures, costing many Pacific Island countries about 10 percent of their gross national incomes.

Rising inflation and worsening trade deficits impeded the capacity of governments to reduce poverty and deliver development programmes and public services.

Rural communities in the Solomon Islands use fossil fuels for transportation, such as motorized canoes. Catherine Wilson/IPS

Rural communities in the Solomon Islands use fossil fuels for transportation, such as motorized canoes. Catherine Wilson/IPS

At this time ordinary Pacific Islanders witnessed escalating food, electricity and transport costs. Between 2009 and 2010 some staple food prices increased by 50-100 percent in at least six Pacific Island countries.

In Vanuatu, the price of taro rose from 1.95 to 3.91 dollars and yams from 6.85 to 14.68 dollars. The purchasing power of family incomes shrunk, with the poorest often the worst hit.

But, according to Penjueli, food prices remain largely unaffected so far by fuel price reductions.

“The rationale is that there should be a drop in prices of both imported foods and local produce because transportation costs will come down, however, we really haven’t seen that benefit yet. Retail stores have not brought their prices down,” she said.

The World Bank claims that a decline of 10 percent in world oil prices is likely to boost economic growth in oil importing countries about 0.1-0.5 percentage points.

But while prices declined about 30-40 percent in 2014-15, current growth forecasts for the region remain modest. GDP growth in the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu is predicted to remain the same from 2015-2016 at 3.5 percent, 2.5 percent and 3.2 percent respectively.

Global oil prices are forecasted to remain low during the course of this year and increase marginally in 2016.

Dr. Dibyendu Maiti, associate professor at the School of Economics at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji, emphasised it was important for Pacific Island governments to respond to the price shift.

“How and to what extent they [governments] will be able to derive benefits from the dramatic oil price drop depends on how quickly they adjust the inflation target and channel public spending on infrastructure and other development programmes.”

Some priorities include investing more in higher education and skills development and “encouraging the private sector to participate with more investment. This would have a long term spill-over effect […] such as raising employment,” Maiti told IPS.

Beyond the oil market, reducing the vulnerability of the Pacific Islands to economic shocks and alleviating the financial burden of fossil fuel imports demands that countries remain on course with plans to convert to locally generated renewable energy.

Three years ago, Tokelau, a tiny Polynesian territory in the central Pacific, led the way by converting to 100 percent renewable energy with a large off-grid solar system providing power to its population of 1,411.

It was a critical move toward sustainable development given Tokelau’s GDP is about 1.5 million dollars, while its annual fuel importation bill was around 754,000 dollars.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida