By Madaline M. George, J.D., Fellow, Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute, Washington University in St. Louis School of Law
A joint report on gun violence by Washington University’s Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute and the Institute for Public Health has been widely cited in a summary report released by the United Nations.
In September 2019, the Washington University institutes submitted a joint stakeholder report on gun violence and human rights to the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of the Third Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. government’s human rights record. The Human Rights Council reviews the U.S. government’s compliance with international human rights law every four years, as it does for every country.
Research from the Harris Institute’s Gun Violence and Human Rights Initiative demonstrates that American’s human rights are violated daily by the government’s failure to adopt reasonable gun control measures. Human rights protections in treaties ratified by the Senate entitle Americans to explicit protections against human rights abuses. They include the right to security, to life, to be free from domestic violence, to practice religion, and to be free from racial and other forms of discrimination. It is immaterial whether the violence is being committed by public officials or private actors – the government has a due diligence obligation to protect its population, especially when such harm is not only foreseeable, but proven to be preventable. As the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and several human rights bodies have noted in the past, lawmakers are required to adopt reasonable gun control measures that can save lives.
In April 2020, the U.N. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released its Summary of Stakeholders’ Submissions on the United States of America. 139 reports on human rights issues in the United States were submitted by non-governmental organizations, individuals, international organizations, and academic institutes. The joint report from Washington University was one of only eleven submissions cited in the Summary in relation to issues of gun violence. Another one of the eleven was a joint submission co-authored by Harris Institute Director Leila Sadat and Fellow Madaline George, among others.
The submissions by Washington University’s institutes and the joint submission to which the Harris Institute contributed were the most cited reports related to gun violence in the U.N. Summary. The Summary highlights several issues raised by the institutes, including the disproportionate effect of gun violence on racial and ethnic minorities and the particular impact on children and adolescents, the frequency of mass and school shootings, the close relationship between firearms and domestic violence, and the legal impediments to industry oversight and preventative research. The U.N. report also references several recommendations made by the institutes, including “to improve and expand the background check system to cover all firearms transactions; adopt a ban on assault-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines; and support safe storage laws.”
The U.N.’s Summary Report is a critical tool for representatives from other countries in their preparation for the review of the United States. Each country has the opportunity to ask the United States questions on human rights protections and abuses, and to make specific recommendations at the conclusion of the review.
The Council was scheduled to conduct its review of the United States in May 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland. Due to the COVID19 pandemic, the review has been postponed and is tentatively scheduled for November 2020. According to the United Nation’s most recent update, the United States has yet to submit its report to the Council.