Urgent debate on Racially Inspired Human Rights Violations
The 43rd Resumed Session of the Human Rights Council
Geneva, 17 June 2020
The Death of George Floyd and Racially Inspired Violence
On May 25, 2020, a black man by the name of George Floyd was videotaped being wrongfully killed by policemen in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In response to his death in the United States, an outburst of protests concerned with racial injustices took place around the world. Some of the protests in the United States became violent with buildings set on fire and stores looted. As a result, the National Guard was called upon to help restore order. However, this quickly backfired as recordings of policemen portraying violent and destructive behaviors against those peacefully protesting circulated. Reporters and journalists of color were also targeted and arrested when trying to cover the events. The international community was quick to respond with protests of their own against the United States’ response to George Floyd’s death and the peaceful protests.
America’s poor response to Mr. Floyd’s death in terms of transparency and accountability as well as the government’s response to the peaceful protests provided evidence that police brutality consistently has the same victims who go without justice - members of the black community. This horrifying incident forced countries around the world to look their governments in the eye and admit to similar faults on their soil. The movement, “Black Lives Matter,” has officially circulated across the world with those from all corners acknowledging that those from Africa or of African descent continue to be faced with unfair advantages wherever they go. The African Group, composed of 54 Member States from Africa, quickly urged the Human Rights Council for an “urgent debate” on the matter.
Therefore, on the 17th and 18th of June, during the Human Rights Council’s 43rd Regular Session, an “urgent debate” was held calling for active and reliable steps to be taken. The debate was specifically on current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests.
The Call for an “Urgent Debate” at the United Nations Human Rights Council
On behalf of the Africa Group, the urgent debate was initiated by Burkina Faso, a country in Western Africa. The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the ideal place to discuss human rights violations and create resolutions to tackle them. The HRC was established in 2006 to promote and protect human rights around the world and make recommendations for those in situations of human rights violations.
One of the purposes of establishing the Human Rights Council is to promote non-discrimination as a human right and make sure it is upheld. The HRC ensures that when national authorities are unwilling to protect human rights, those being violated have a means of security. This is a key moment where non-discrimination is blatantly disregarded and the HRC must uphold its commitment to respond.
Statements by the Leadership of the Human Rights Council
Ms. Amina J. Mohammed, the Deputy Security-General of the United Nations, proclaimed during the urgent debate that racism violates the UN Charter and goes against the UN’s core values. She clearly stated that diversity is a richness, not a threat, and therefore, we must go beyond condemning racism, and do more. Afro-descendants are continuously in a circle of unequal conditions and inequalities. Ms. Mohammed urged that today is a turning point in history where we can finally agree that all humans have a right to dignity. The world has had enough racism, and as the motto of the “Black Lives Matter” movement says, “enough is enough”.
High Commissioner for Human Rights
On a similar note, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, referred to the lessons we failed to learn from the past and that the influence of slavery and racism, despite the Civil Rights Movement, has never been fully eradicated. Assisted action across the world is needed and she gave a list of examples of changes she wants to see such as reforming existing laws in regards to law enforcement and changes to education and policies to promote dialogue and real change. Ms. Bachelet also suggested formal apologies on behalf of the legacy of slave trade and colonialism. Essentially, her message was clear: the international community must act now, and give more than recommendations. Incidents need to be investigated properly and the perpetrators need to be held accountable. Change must start now.
Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission
Mr. Quartey Thomas Kwesi, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, stated that the international community needs to examine the root causes of systemic discrimination in order to find effective solutions to eradicate it. Mr. Kwesi reminded everyone that humanity has come a long way thus far and we must not let racial discrimination, racism, or xenophobia stop the fight we have from moving forward. Everyone in the international community needs to do their part to eradicate discrimination.
Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume is a Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, also spoke on behalf of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. Her statement proclaimed that modern day racial terror lynching’s are happening in the United States against those of African descent. This problem goes farther than the police officers committing these actions, but the systems that stand behind them. Ms. Achiume emphasized that the Human Rights Council must provide for an International Commission of Inquiry with proper investigations completed in the United States. The global protests are evidence that all forms of discrimination will not be tolerated and the Human Rights Council must react appropriately with actionable steps to show that black lives matter.
Mr. Philonise Floyd
Brother to George Floyd, Mr. Philonise Floyd made a statement at this urgent debate emphasizing that the officers responsible for his brother’s death weren’t arrested until mass protests began around the country. Then, peaceful protesters were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets as they were standing up to police brutality. This entire situation is an injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement will not stand for it. The Human Rights Council must help seek justice for not only Mr. Floyd, but for countless other black lives taken away at the hands of law enforcement agencies. His heartfelt message was felt by everyone who listened and the anger and frustration he held is a clear indicator that he has had enough and human rights violations on behalf of the color of one’s skin need to stop now.
The African Group
The African Group, represented by the Central African Republic, emphasized that many resolutions on racism and discrimination have been made in the past, yet haven’t been upheld resulting in this urgent debate. People should not have to continue to fight for their equality around the world. They noted that every country should stand up against systemic racism and discrimination within their borders and that it is unacceptable the world is still fighting for human rights of everyone today as this should already be respected.
The position of the European Union, represented by Croatia, was that fighting against discrimination has always been a fundamental principle of the EU and they will fight continuously until racism, xenophobia, and discrimination is eradicated. They suggested public policies aimed at promoting peace should be strengthened and that agreements of freedom of public assembly, freedom of protesters and safety of journalists will always be upheld within the European Union.
Countries part of the Non-Aligned Movement were represented by Azerbaijan and their position drew specific attention to the media in promoting racism, xenophobia, and racial discrimination. NAM advocated for Member States to increase dialogue and discussions of race within education systems and emphasized their support of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA).
Indonesia’s joint statement with other countries
Indonesia also spoke on behalf of a group of countries that the police and law enforcement agencies play an extremely important role in society. However, with corruption and violence much too common, law enforcement needs to be retrained and their needs to be independent accountability measures put in place. Most importantly, laws should be adjusted over time accordingly and all police states should pledge their absolute intolerance of racism and discrimination.
Mexico’s joint statement with other countries
Mexico, on behalf of a group of countries, highlighted the importance of the DDPA and pushed for serious measures to be adopted quickly. They highlighted that states have the responsibility to prevent racism and to take accountability if something does go wrong. With the world heightened in panic due to COVID-19, unity has been proven to be more valuable than ever. By uniting to eradicate hate speech and racial supremacy ideologies, the international community can take actions into their own hands.
The repercussions of George Floyd’s death resulted in a global outcry from all corners of the world. This is because racism is not exclusive to any region, but deeply rooted in many parts of the world because of the legacies of white supremacy, the slave trade, and colonialism. Many countries who made oral statements at the urgent debate agreed that progress has been made to eradicate racism, but patterns of discrimination and racism continuously prevail as they are so deeply embedded into all institutions. Since no country can claim to have eradicated racism, the entire international community must do more. Many countries re-established their commitment to combatting racism and xenophobia within their borders.
Throughout the debate, it became clear that because of the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, this became an important opportunity for each country to reflect on their own shortcomings of police misconduct and racial discrimination. Further, many countries stood strongly by policies, specifically the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action from 2001. Essentially, they advocated for more active measures to be taken by human rights and treaty members. Each country must ensure the strengthening of national legislation and cooperation to help the UN achieve this goal.
The Human Rights Council must not remain silent in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement as human rights violations perpetrated against Africans and those of African descent are widespread and rampant. The world has made it clear from the global protests that racial violence will no longer be tolerated.
There is an underlying message that all countries need to do their part. Again, it all boils down to the fact that racism is still present in our societies because the legacies of colonialism and slavery are extremely deep rooted. To make matters worse, plans such as the DDPA, international policies, international laws, and more do not seem to be effective as the world is still witnessing many forms of racism across all societies.
Guyana spoke of racism as a plague and racial discrimination as a systemic social cancer of which we have yet to find a cure. Systems in the Western world and beyond were designed to marginalize Africans and this is crystal clear today as those of African descent are treated unequally.
NGO’s Response at the Urgent Debate
Many NGO’s came prepared with specific initiatives for the Human Rights Council to adopt. Overall, the message across all NGO’s was that action must be taken as silence is violence. The Council must not be silent during this time where human rights violations have been recorded and widespread from the United States. When state actors are among the perpetrators, this is when the Human Rights Council is needed more than ever. The police brutality targeting the black community combined with the corresponding violence against peaceful protesters and journalists needs to be immediately denounced.
The general consensus of the statements was that the United States must address the systemic violence and racism that is embedded into many institutions. Their failure to comply with international human rights law must come to an end.
GICJ, in a joint statement with the International Organisation For the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and International-Lawyers.Org, called on the nations of the world to embrace equal and concrete opportunities for all peoples, especially at the social, cultural, economic and political level. If the Durban Declaration and Programme of Actions was fully implemented, we believe that this critical moment could have been avoided. Regardless, the circulation of George Floyd’s death reminded all countries to face their own legacies of colonialism and figure out ways to address them properly.
Further, in the United States, the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” allows police officers to only be committed if they went against a clearly established constitutional right. This lets police officers commit acts of misconduct with no accountability and thus, wrongful killings continue to repeat themselves. We call for all UN Member States to adopt the Durban Declaration and Programme of Actions in order to end racial inequalities and unite against human rights violations.
Written on 17 June 2020, the Human Rights Council condemns the racial, discriminatory, and violent practices against people of African descent by law enforcement as well as the structural racism in the criminal justice system.
Commission of Inquiry and High Commissioner for Human Rights
The HRC decided to establish an independent international commission of inquiry in order to establish facts and record alleged violations relating to systemic racism and human rights abuses. They request that the commission of inquiry examine government responses to peaceful protesters and calls upon the United States government to cooperate with this new commission as well as other relevant UN bodies. Throughout this process, the High Commissioner must update the Council on police brutality against those of African descent in all places applicable. In addition, the commission must provide oral updates to the HRC as well as present a final report at the 47th session of the HRC.
Response to the Resolution
Overall, the resolution diluted references and did not correctly hold the United States accountable for their actions. The vague and weakened resolutions that were agreed upon are simply condemnations and recommendations, but actions are limited to that of reports and oral statements by the High Commissioner and Commission of Inquiry.
A number of NGO’s said the Council failed to set up a Commission of Inquiry with a specific focus on the United States of America. This impedes genuine injustice and accountability at the international level for systemic racism and police violence everywhere. They emphasized the fact of the matter is that Western governments, especially the United States, have failed to protect black people from police violence and systemic racism. In conclusion, they welcome the original resolution by the African Group as it provides critical steps towards elevating the voices of those most affected by human rights violations. The resolution of the Human Rights Council undermined those who needed the council’s attention by switching the conversation to specifically about the United States to a more generic one. In addition, many NGO’s made statements that the United States has avoided the council’s scrutiny, which no states are exempt from, making a strong resolution all the more necessary.
The hope is that this Commission of Inquiry will thoroughly investigate systemic racism and law enforcement in the United States as failure to do so would defeat the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Just as Guyana stated during the urgent debate, we have a social cancer with no cure. However, we have taken the first steps forward by acknowledging the problem and establishing a new commitment towards ending systemic racism and racial discrimination. This urgent debate goes down as a moment in history where the international community is determined to make change through tangible action to protect those of African descent from being treated unequally around the world. Enough is enough - black lives matter.
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