Justice for George Floyd: UN Human Rights Council Shines Spotlight on Systemic Racism and Police Brutality

The March session of the UN Human Rights Council was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But on Monday morning, that session resumed in Geneva with a dramatic opening. The President of the Human Rights Council gave the floor to Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso to the Council and coordinator of the body’s African Group:

Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso

“The tragic events of 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis in the US which led to the death of George Floyd led to protests throughout the world against injustice and police brutality that persons of African descent face on a daily basis in many regions of the world. The death of George Floyd unfortunately is not an isolated incident. Many other cases of persons of African descent having faced the same fate because of their origin and police violence exist. After the widespread indignation over this situation, it would be inconceivable that the Human Rights Council not deal with these questions which are very relevant in accordance with this mandate. This is why the African Group calls upon the Human Rights Council to organize an urgent debate on current violations of human rights that are based on racism, systemic racism, police brutality against persons of African descent, and violence against peaceful demonstrations, to call for an end to be put to these injustices.”  

Without objection, the Human Rights Council President then scheduled an unprecedented urgent debate for Wednesday, June 17: 

It was all over in less than 3 minutes, but it reflected countless hours of worldwide advocacy. The Advocates joined forces with over 600 organizations in 60 countries, in an effort endorsed by family members of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Jordan Davis, Breonna Taylor, and Michael Brown, to push the Council to dedicate a special session to racial justice in the United States 

What to expect? 

Tomorrow at 3:00 pm Geneva time (8:00 am Minneapolis time), the Council President will gavel open an urgent debate on “current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests.” You can join me to watch the session livefollow The Advocates on Twitter for livetweetsor catch it later on the UN Web TV archivesThe debate may continue Thursday morning at 10:00 am Geneva time (3:00 am Minneapolis time). 

Like any debate at the Human Rights Council, you can expect a lot of polite formalities. The Council is a political body, with diplomats representing the interests of their own governments in the context of human rights. But you can also expect that every speaker will have watched the devastating and infuriating video of the police killing of George Floyd. Many of these high-level diplomats will say his name, as well as the names of other Black people who have been killed at the hands of law enforcement in the United States. It is possible that the Council will invite a member of Mr. Floyd’s family to address the body via video link.  

Monday’s strong words from Burkina Faso, calling for “an end to be put to these injustices,” may be a sign of what’s to come. It’s hard to gauge whether the debate will include any defense of the impunity that law enforcement officials in the United States usually enjoy. Since the United States resigned its seat on the Council in 2018, it has not attended Council sessions, but it is possible a U.S. delegate will attend the urgent debate and offer up some defense 

Accountability and impunity will be words to listen for. A core component of human rights is that when the government commits a human rights violation, the responsible parties must be held accountable. With qualified immunity as an entrenched judicial doctrine serving as a barrier to accountability, our system falls short.  

As the Council wraps up its March session, resolutions will be top of mind. Burkina Faso has prepared a resolution for the Council to consider later this week. It calls for:

An independent international commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council to establish facts and circumstances related to the systemic racism, alleged violations of International Human Rights Law and abuses against Africans and of People of African Descent in the United States of America and other parts of the world recently affected,  by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the deaths of Africans and of People of African Descent; with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice

Ordinarily, resolutions are weeks in the making, but because of the urgent debate, the Council will have the opportunity to move relatively quickly to take action—if it has the political will. We’ll be able to follow debate and voting on the resolution later this week and next Monday. 

If the resolution passes, this commission of inquiry would conduct an investigation and provide a series of reports to the Council at its sessions in September, March 2021, and June 2021. The Council would then have the opportunity to take additional steps based on the commission’s final report. Those steps could include renewing the commission’s mandate or taking other steps to ensure accountability for human rights violations committed against people of African descent in the United States. 

Our efforts 

As soon as the Council announced the urgent debate, we sprang into action. The critical actors in this debate will be the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, who will be able to vote on resolutions later this week, and again in early July. But all UN Member States, as well as observers such as the European Union, the Holy See, and the State of Palestine will also be able to take the floor during the debate.  

We identified UN Member States that are particularly vocal on issues of racism, racial discrimination, and minority rights, like Honduras and Sierra Leone, adding 20 countries to the original 47.  

After years of lobbying delegates to the Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review, we have a great set of contacts for most of the delegations in Geneva. So we reached out to familiar names, letting them know about the written statement we submitted to the Council last week on systemic racism in the United States.  

We had heard that U.S. officials have been working behind the scenes to try to make sure that the United States wasn’t singled out in Wednesday’s urgent debate. So we wrote to delegates to ask them to ensure that the debate would indeed shine a spotlight on the United States. More important, we asked them to commit to measures that would hold the United States accountable for these ongoing and systemic human rights violations. We urged them to support a resolution to mandate the creation of an independent, international accountability mechanism to document and investigate extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black people.  

Other UN bodies speak out 

Photo credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Professor E. Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, along with the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, is making a similar request that the Council establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States 

Last Friday, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination invoked its early warning and urgent action mechanism, called on the United States “to increase the oversight of police misconduct, and to ensure that each allegation of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials . . . is promptly and effectively investigated irrespective of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin and that the alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions.” The Committee also emphasized that “systemic and structural discrimination permeates State institutions and disproportionately promotes racial disparities against African Americans, notably in the enjoyment of the rights to equal treatment before tribunals, [and] security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm.” 

Next steps 

With decades of experience collaborating with partners around the world on UN advocacy, we know that sharp criticism from the United Nations is no quick fix. Efforts to dismantle systemic racism and end impunity require both external pressure from bodies like the Council and as well as grass roots mobilization from activists on the ground. Together, we can leverage that pressure from all directions to create a system that respects human rights.  

Click here to learn more about how to advocate for human rights at the United Nations. 

Amy Bergquist is a Senior Staff Attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

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