Elon Law professor: Violence against Black Americans qualifies as crimes against humanity 

Associate Professor Tiffany Atkins L’11 writes in a new journal article on why policies and practices that dehumanize Black Americans represent “ongoing human rights violations occurring in the United States” and how American exceptionalism is “a barrier to justice and accountability.” 

Crimes against humanity, a type of atrocity crime that is afforded the highest protection of international law, can take several forms: murder, severe deprivation of liberty, and inhumane acts, to name a few.

Given the history of violence against Black Americans in the United States, asks an Elon Law professor, why has the International Criminal Court not held the U.S. accountable for its extensive list of human rights atrocities?

Associate Professor Tiffany Atkins L’11, Elon Law’s inaugural Dean’s Faculty Fellow for Equity & Inclusion, tackles that question in “These Brutal Indignities: The Case for Crimes Against Humanity in Black America”, which appears in the latest issue of the Kentucky Law Journal.

In her article, Atkins examines the historic “We Charge Genocide” petition to the United Nations, filed in 1951 by the Civil Rights Congress. From economic harm created by redlining and restrictive covenants to health disparities and psychological terror of vigilante violence by state-chartered organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, civil rights leaders argued “the racist theory of the government of the U.S.A. is not the private affair of Americans but the concern of mankind everywhere.” That petition was ignored by the United Nations, in effect allowing atrocities to continue.

Whether the crimes alleged in the petition should be considered genocide “is beyond the scope of this paper,” Atkins writes, but “there can be no question that they are a compelling case for serious violations to the core tenets of human dignity and equality, tenets which form the basis of international human rights law.”

Such violations, she argues, amount to crimes against humanity.

Atkins notes that while the condition of Black Americans has improved since 1951, at the same time, “Black people are still being executed for petty infractions that would otherwise be harmless if committed by a white person: selling cigarettes, playing with a toy gun, eating ice cream in the ‘wrong’ place, living in the ‘wrong’ place, driving in the ‘wrong’ place, simply existing in the wrong place.”

So why should killings of Black Americans that are independent of each other, occurring in various places across time and with striking similarity, get classified as crimes against humanity? According to Atkins, these killings represent a widespread, systemic plan of attack against a civilian population, a key component of crimes against humanity.

Although there may be no evidence of a written plan by U.S. police or vigilante actors to commit these crimes, ICC precedent states that a plan may be inferred by recurring patterns of violence and the use of public or private resources.

Atkins then writes that no significant help has come from the United Nations or the International Criminal Court despite recent findings of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States.

Established in 2021 by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the commission has identified “a pattern and practice of racist police violence in the U.S. in the context of a history of oppression dating back to the extermination of First Nations people … and the continued perpetuation of structural racism.”

Atkins observes that the UN has yet to officially act on the findings and may choose not to do so given its relationship to the United States, though the UN Human Rights Council did draft a resolution calling for police reform and condemning systemic racism.

The ICC also is a nonstarter, she writes. Former President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Rome Statute, effectively ending any jurisdiction the ICC might have had with charges of crimes against humanity against American citizens.

Former President Barack Obama never reentered the Rome Statute, nor did former President Donald Trump. Atkins writes that President Joe Biden also looks unlikely to do so despite warmer relationships between the United States and the ICC. It continues what she describes as “the presidential trend of exceptionalism over accountability,” holding other nations to a higher standard than the United States itself.

Related Articles

“It may not be in the interest of the American government to yield to international laws and treaties which might limit its power and subject it to scrutiny and investigation,” she writes, “but it is in the best interest of its citizens, particularly those who have endured these brutal indignities.”

Atkins graduated from Elon Law in 2011 as the recipient of the David Gergen Award for Leadership and Professionalism. She is a member of the Board of Governors of the Society of American Law Teachers, a community of law teachers, law school administrators, librarians, academic support experts, students, and affiliates “working for more than 40 years to improve the legal profession, the law academy and expand the power of law to under-served communities.”

At Elon Law, Atkins has received national attention for her 2020 article “#ForTheCulture: Generation Z and the Future of Legal Education” in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law. She was bestowed with the 2022 ALWD Diversity Award by the Association of Legal Writing Directors during a July conference organized by the Legal Writing Institute.