Why I made BLM my dissertation topic | Saphia Youssef, LLM Human Rights and Legal Practice

As Black History Month approaches, postgrad student Saphia Youssef who recently graduated our LLM Human Rights and International Relations, explains why she felt compelled to make racial injustice within US law enforcement the subject of her dissertation.

Saphia Youssef, LLM Human Rights and Legal Practice (Graduated September 2020)

Following the murder of George Floyd on 25th May 2020 and the worldwide protests that followed, I was inspired to write my Masters dissertation, which I titled; How can the US be held accountable for the violation of international human rights in cases of police misconduct, the use of excessive force and police killings. I analysed this issue through an international human rights law perspective, focusing in particular on the right to life, the right to be free from discrimination and the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. I also examined the US’s legal obligations under both national and international law, highlighting the US’s violation of constitutional rights and protected human rights. The aim for my research was to document the systematic nature of police misconduct, excessive force and police killings in the US and highlight the discriminatory core of the issue. I developed practical recommendations for implementation in the US to directly address the issue and ensure the US upholds international human rights standards. 

My main research questions focused around the issues of national trends in police brutality cases; specifically the race and gender of victims, litigation involving the use of lethal force by law enforcement officials, the influence of international bodies and NGOs and accountability mechanisms. The most significant findings of my research were; 


  1. White victims comprise 37 percent of police killings[1], despite comprising over 76 percent of the US population.[2] In contrast, African American victims account for 24 percent of police killings,[3] but only 13 percent of the US population.[4] African Americans are therefore twice as likely to be victims of police killings than white Americans.[5]
  2. Men have a significantly higher lifetime risk of being victim to police killings than women, in particular black males.[6] However, over half of black women who were victim to police killings were unarmed.[7]
  3. Only 42 officers were convicted for on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2020,[8] despite the fact that there has consistently been over 1,000 victims of police shootings annually,[9] illustrating a severe lack of accountability for police misconduct and a lack of access to justice for the victims and their families. 
  4. The US has legal obligations to protect the rights to life, to freedom from discrimination and to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[10], the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[11], the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination[12] and the Convention Against Torture.[13] Although the US appears to be an abiding member of the international community through its ratification of key human rights treaties, the de facto human rights situation in the US is extremely different.
  5. There is no national database on charges brought against police officers for misconduct and the outcomes of these cases, however in New York City there have been 18 cases of charges brought against 102 police officers for the allegation of wrongful death between 2015 and 2018.[14]
  6. The issues of police misconduct, the use of excessive force and police killings in the US has disproportionately affected African Americans for decades.[15] Despite calls from highly regarded international bodies, including the UN, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, as well as prevalent NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the US fails to make considerable changes to its legislation and policy to address these issues and strengthen the US’s compliances to international standards. 

Although researching and writing my dissertation was extremely interesting and thought-provoking, it was also at times deeply upsetting. Towards the end of my research period, I found myself becoming disconnected to the issue, thinking about the victims of police misconduct and police killings as numbers and statistics rather than actual human beings. It wasn’t until the police encounter with Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on 23rd August, in which an unarmed black man was shot seven times in the back by police officers in front of his three children, that I was reawoken to the fact that police violence is happening in real time to real people. This overwhelming realisation that as I was writing about this issue for my thesis, African Americans were still being murdered at the hands of police reinvigorated the purpose of my research. I knew that although my contribution to this topic would only be small, it was an important and necessary piece of work that should be shared to help people understand the severity of the issue in America. 

I also thought it was essential to highlight the female victims of police misconduct, excessive force and police killings in my research as this is a largely under-investigated and under-reported issue. The issue of police violence against women of colour in particular, is increasingly gaining attention both in academia and in the media, especially in regard to black women who are 1.4 times more likely to be victims of police killings than white women.[16] The “Say Her Name” social movement, beginning in 2015, aims to put a spotlight on black female victims of police killings, illustrating the growing challenge to the male-centred narrative. One of the most recent stories of police killings involving a black female victim was the case of Breonna Taylor, which led to significant activism and campaigning on social media. Breonna, a 26 year old, emergency medical technician was fatally shot whilst asleep in her bed due to a “no-knock” search warrant issued by the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky in March of this year. Her tragic and unnecessary death led to widespread protests about police use of excessive force and the common disregard for black lives. This case is particularly noteworthy as Breonna’s death and the subsequent outcry led to the Louisville Metro City Council voting unanimously to introduce “Breonna’s Law”, which bans “no-knock” search warrants and requires that body cameras must be worn during all search warrants.[17] Therefore, demonstrating that major legislative change can be achieved, which directly addresses the use of lethal force by police officers and provides disciplinary actions for those who violate the law. Nonetheless, this case only illustrates change on a local level and fails to address the problem on a national scale. 

In concluding my research I found that there is a serious lack of federal recognition of the systematic nature of the problem of police violence, excessive force and police killings in the US. However, the Black Lives Matter Movement in the last 6 years has pushed this issue to the forefront of the political agenda, illustrating the power of social movements and campaigning. Despite this increased publicity and scrutiny of the US, accountability mechanisms for police killings and the use of excessive force remain inadequate. Criminal charges brought against police officers are rare and civil cases in which victims receive financial remedy fail to address the root of the issue. Therefore, there needs to be significant changes in legislation, policy and training nationwide to ensure the US is in compliance with both national law and international human rights law. 

Saphia Youssef, LLM Human Rights and Legal Practice (Graduated September 2020).

[1] Samuel Sinyangwe, “Mapping Police Violence: National Trends” (Mapping Police Violence, 2020) Available at: https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/nationaltrends (Accessed on 02/07/20).

[2] United States Census Bureau, “Quickfacts: United States” (US Census, 2019). Available at: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219 (Accessed on 06/06/20).

[3] Sinyangwe, “Mapping Police Violence”.

[4] United States Census Bureau, “Quickfacts: United States”. 

[5] Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins and Steven Rich, “Fatal Force Database” (The Washington Post, 2020).

[6] Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee and Michael Esposito, “Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity, and sex”, National Academy of Sciences, 116:34, p. 16794.

[7] Odis Johnson, Keon Gilbert and Habiba Ibrahim, Race, Gender, and the Contexts of Unarmed Fatal Interactions with Police (Institute for Public Health at Washington State University for the “Fatal Interactions with Police Study” 2018), p. 10.

[8] Statistica Research Department, “Number of convictions of police officers arrested for murder by charge 2005-2020” (Statistica, 2020). Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1123386/convictions-police-officers-arrested-murder-charge-us/ (Accessed on 12/08/20).

[9] Sinyangwe, “Mapping Police Violence”.

[10] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, A/811 (1948).

[11] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999 (1966).

[12] International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 660 (1965).

[13] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1465 (1984).

[14] Cynthia Conti-Cook and Julie Ciccolini, “CAPstat” (The Legal Aid Society, 2020). Available at: https://www.capstat.nyc (Accessed on 24/08/20).

[15] Allyson Collins, Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States (Human Rights Watch 1998).

[16] Frances M. Beal, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female”, Meridians, 8:2 (2008), p. 166.

[17] Louisville Metro Council, Action Summary: Final (Metro Council Minutes 2020).

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