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In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, US commentators and policymakers, from President Obama on down, have called on states to look at whether statutes allowing the use of deadly force in self-defense – so-called “stand your ground” laws – are encouraging, rather than preventing, lethal violence.

The president last week stopped short of calling for outright repeal of the laws, under which a person may use deadly force if he or she “reasonably believes” it's necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm, and even if he has a chance to escape. And he rightly noted that the defense for George Zimmerman, who was acquitted on July 13 of second-degree murder and of manslaughter charges for shooting and killing 17-year-old Martin last year, did not rest on Florida's stand your ground statute. But he did question whether such laws, in force in two dozen states, are contributing to the “peace and security” of communities, as their backers contend. Attorney General Eric Holder was far more blunt, saying the laws “sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”

No question, lawmakers ought to carefully examine stand your ground laws. And as they do, they  should look for guidance in international human rights law. Two fundamental rights in particular, both found in treaties ratified by the United States, are relevant here. The right to be free from racial discrimination, enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, prohibits not only intentional racism, but governmental policies that have disparate racial effects. The evidence as to whether white versus black defendants in a state like Florida have an easier time resorting to stand your ground laws when accused of crimes is mixed, and further study is needed. But if they do, human rights law requires legislators to revise policies that have such racially discriminatory effects, even if the discrimination is unintentional.

A second fundamental right implicated is the right to life. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obligates governments to pass laws and take other positive measures to protect the right, including holding accountable those who violate it. Human rights law, which focuses on government behavior, requires law enforcement officials to use non-violent means before resorting to the use of firearms. The use of firearms is only permitted when strictly unavoidable to protect a life against imminent threat of death or grave injury.  Any laws concerning the use of force in self-defense by private citizens should at the very least meet the standards for law enforcement officials.

“How do we learn some lessons from [the Trayvon Martin case] and move in a positive direction?”the president asked last week. One way is for Americans to speak honestly and openly about race. Another, more concrete, is to consider whether laws in the United States respect the basic human rights to life and to live free from racial discrimination, and, if they don’t, to begin to change them.

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