On Wednesday 17 June, in the context of the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, which resumed on Monday 12 June following its suspension to comply with COVID-19 health measures, an urgent debate was convened on the ‘current racially inspired human rights violations, systematic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests.’
The urgent debate was requested through an official letter from H.E. Ambassador Diedonné W. Désiré Sougouri of Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group and addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council on 12 June 2020.
Urgent debates can be initiated during a regular session of the Human Rights Council to tackle urgent situations requiring a rapid response from the Council. Such a request from a member State to adjust the programme of work of the Council during its regular session may be subjected to a vote, but in the present context was adopted by consensus.
The Urgent Debate
After introductory remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council, Elisabeth Tichy Fisslberger, and a minute of silence observed at her behest to commemorate all victims of racial violence, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by Ms Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ms Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Quartey Thomas Kwesi, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Ms E. Tendanyi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism and Mr Philonise Floyd, brother of Mr George Floyd.
Ms Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, opened the urgent debate by conveying the greetings of Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and quoting from a letter he sent to all UN staff, in which he strongly condemned the scourge of racism, which violates the UN Charter and debases the values upon which it stands. She then turned to the words of the Under-Secretary-Generals of the UN, who are of African descent, to relate their sentiments of deep trauma at centuries of racial injustice and their call to move beyond mere condemnatory expressions.
Pointing to the clear exasperation of protesters around the world marching for racial justice and equality, she recalled that though these protests were triggered by the killing of George Floyd in an appalling act of police brutality, such violence ‘spans history and borders alike’. Just as the UN fought apartheid years ago, so too must it fight the hatred, oppression, and humiliation today, she said, pointing to the situation of Africans and African descendants trapped in generational cycles of poverty, created by unfair obstacles to their development and stemming from the most appalling manifestation of human brutality that was the slave trade. Ms Mohammad pursued by stressing that today, across the world, persons of African descent receive unequal services, face unjustifiable housing and employment practices, are subject to racial profiling and, due to poverty and structural racism, are the community hardest-hit by COVID-19. Turning to her own experience of discrimination in the United Kingdom and her resulting numbness to it, she conveyed her dream, like that of Martin Luther King Jr. that one day her granddaughter, Maya, could grow up in a world ‘where she will not be judged by the colour of her skin, but by the strength of her character.’ Concluding that ‘enough is enough’, she stressed that ‘lasting peace, and sustainable development can only be built on the equality, human rights and dignity of everyone’ and assured that the UN was fully mobilised to wage a ‘sacred battle’ to end the scourge of racism.
In her statement, Ms Michelle Bachelet, also highlighted the massive wave of protests all around the world, stemming from the death of George Floyd but emblematic of the wider issue of systemic racism and excessive use of disproportionate force by law enforcement against racial and ethnic minorities across the globe. Stressing that these protests are the culmination of generations of pain and struggles for equality, she urged the international community to at long last seize this moment to make the fundamental changes being demanded by the peoples of the world. She pointed to the scale of these protests ‘in nations whose history has been intertwined with the twin evils of slavery and racism’ to demonstrate that despite the exemplary struggle of the civil rights movement, they never fully acknowledged their harm or eradicated their influence.
Striking a cautiously optimistic note in the face of long overdue police reforms, including the banning of chokeholds, the prohibition on the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades against peaceful protestors, limitations on provision of military-grade weaponry to police forces, and – perhaps most vital of all – measures to better ensure both prompt and effective accountability and prosecution for misconduct by security forces, Ms Bachelet noted the increased questioning of the pervasive role of policing in our societies. She said this begs the question of how to reconstruct societal approaches to policing from the ground up rather than through piecemeal reform. She further stressed that being held to a high and honourable standard was in the interest of every law enforcement officer and that ensuring accountability in cases of violations on their part was in the interest of every State, as the rights, dignity and equality of all formed the basis of successful and resilient societies. In this regard she proffered her Office’s ‘Human Rights Guidelines on the Use of Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement’ as guidance to States.
While calling for decisive action and an end to cycles of impunity across the world, Ms Bachelet urged to go beyond law enforcement reform to address the pervasive racism that corrodes institutions of government and entrenches inequality. She pointed to the harms of racial discrimination in areas such as access to healthcare, inadequate education, limited job advancement, refusals of housing and mortgage loans, ill-treatment by officials, practical restrictions on the right to vote and over-incarceration in prisons. Arguing that ‘systemic racial discrimination extends beyond any expression of individual hatred’ and results from bias in multiple systems and institutions of public policy, thus reinforcing barriers to equality, she called for far-reaching change in educational, economic, political and judicial systems. Going further, she said that ‘behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism, and discriminatory policing lies the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism’ and called for ‘through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms.
As guidance to States in their efforts, she recalled that the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, provided international standards to combat racial discrimination in all spheres, while highlighting that the International Decade for People of African descent and its approaching mid-term review by the General Assembly, provides an important framework for taking action on structural racial issues. Finally, she encouraged the Council to heighten its focus on issues involving racism and racial discrimination by giving more prominence to the important work of the intergovernmental and expert mechanisms that address this issue. In conclusion, she stressed that time is of the essence, patience has run out and emphatically declared: ‘Black lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. The lives of people of colour matter. All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights: that is what this Council, like my Office, stands for.’
Mr Quartey Thomas Kwesi, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union, then made a brief statement in which he expressed the African Union’s rejection of continued discriminatory practices against black citizens in the United States. ‘This systemic discrimination cannot be eradicated without tackling the issue from the roots’ he said, highlighting that this was an opportunity for the international community to examine these root causes, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to its consequences. Stressing that this debate is an idea whose time has come, as well as ‘the call of our times’, he urged the international community to intensify individual, collective, and national efforts to ensure that all forms of discrimination are eradicated.
Ms E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, then delivered a statement in her own capacity and on behalf of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association, and the Coordination Committee of the UN Human Rights Council on Special Procedures.
Ms Achiume began by recalling that in the face of the chilling images of the police killing of George Floyd, the job of the special procedures of the Council is to sound the alarm to the situation surrounding such grave violations of human rights. She referred to the joint-statement of 47 special mandate-holders, as well as the statements by the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association, by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, calling attention to the national uprising in the United States against systemic racism in law enforcement. She presented their collective analysis that the issue in the United States is not limited to specific enforcement practices or individual officers, but extends to the laws and the policies governing law enforcement, which affect all racial and ethnic minorities.
Further noting that an important purpose of the UN human rights system and its mechanisms is to ensure that those subject to violations have some means of recourse when national authorities are unable and unwilling to protect human rights, she called for any resolution adopted by the Council to provide for an international commission of inquiry with the necessary authority to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States. Furthermore, arguing that the transnational nature of the protests is a testament to the parallel reality of the issue of systemic racism in law enforcement in various countries, she urged that such a commission of inquiry be thematic or endowed with the power to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement globally. Ms Achiume exhorted the Council not to take a course of action that would rely on existing Special Procedure mandates as they did not have the capacity to actually make a difference in the lives of the millions of people in the United States subject to systemic racism in law enforcement.
Claiming that there has been a steady erosion in the United Nations of the commitment to the anti-racism human rights framework, she urged members of the Council, the Secretary-General, and the High Commissioner on Human Rights to recommit to supporting the different mechanisms and processes established to that end. ‘What is at stake here’ she said, ‘is the lives and lived experiences of human beings who deserve fundamental human rights protections, and who should not be denied these rights on the basis of the colour of their skin.’ Noting arguments from some member States that a commission of inquiry should be reserved for more serious human rights violations, she expressed strong disagreement, pointing to the global uprisings as evidence of the gravity of the issue. Ultimately, she said, if the calls from family members of victims and the global upheaval being witnessed were insufficient to convince of the need for an international commission of inquiry, it’s difficult to imagine what would convince of the equal worth of people of African descent.
Finally, Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, killed on May 25, 2020 at the hands of four Minnesota police officers, delivered a powerful statement relating his and his family’s anguish as they watched the video of his brother’s death. He recounted the lack of mercy and humanity as an officer knelt on his brother’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds while he repeatedly called out ‘I can’t breathe’ and lamented that it took protests from masses of people around the world for any punitive action to be taken. This, he said, is evidence that ‘black lives do not matter in the United States of America’. He went on to condemn the disproportionate crackdown on journalists and peaceful protesters. Mr Floyd stressed that such treatment of black people in America was a daily lived experience and called on the United Nations to help him get justice for his brother and all black people in America by establishing a commission of inquiry.
During the following debate, 30 member States, 59 Observer States, four international organisations and 26 civil society organisations took the floor to condemn racism and discrimination in all its forms.
Webcasts of those statements can be found here and here.
The Central African Republic on behalf of the African Group thanked the Council and its secretariat for agreeing to their request for an urgent debate. They expressed deep concern at repeated incidents of police brutality and repeated violations of human rights of people of African descent in parts of the world and noted the numerous recommendations published by human rights mechanisms to address concerns of excessive use of force by law enforcement personnel, as well as the numerous allegations of poor treatment inflicted upon persons of African descent. They urged the international community to renew its commitment to put in place the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action and strongly condemned systemic and non-systemic racism in all its forms. Ultimately, they said, ‘it is unacceptable that we must still negotiate the equality of rights of certain people 72 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that all people are born equally in rights and dignity’.
Indonesia on behalf of the core group on the Convention against Torture Initiative, highlighted the importance of integrity for police and law enforcement actors to fulfil their fundamental protective role without fracturing the social contract. They lamented the prevalence of complaints of corruption and violence in their activities and pointed to the disproportionate risk of unfair treatment faced by marginalised and vulnerable groups. They stressed the need for clear rules, proper police training, diverse recruitment and adequate accountability mechanisms and expressed their readiness to respond to global calls to reimagine law enforcement. Finally, they called on all member States and police chiefs to pledge zero tolerance to racism and discrimination and to review and adjust laws, practices, procedures and policies to ensure they are people-centred and prevention-oriented.
Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement expressed its unequivocal and principled position against all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and any kind of related intolerance. They expressed concern at the increased use of mass media to promote and disseminate racism, racial hatred, xenophobia, racial discrimination and related intolerance and called on all member States prioritise to educational programs that promote dialogue and tolerance among communities in order to curb the scourge of hate speech. Finally, they called on all States to fully and effectively implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and the outcome document of the Durban Review Conference.
Croatia delivered a statement on behalf of the European Union, expressing sympathy to the family and friends of George Floyd, as well as all those victims of racism and police brutality in the world. Noting that incidents of racially motivated violence and hatred take place in all regions of the world, they stressed the continuous need to step up efforts and actions to prevent hate crimes, discrimination, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance. While pointing to the progress made to prevent and eradicate racial discrimination since the entry into force of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination more than 50 years ago, they lamented that too many people around the world, including in the European Union, are victims of racial harassment and hate speech, because of the colour of their skin, their ethnic origins or religion. To combat this reality, they called for a firm, global, collective response, which leaves no room for complacency and requires political leadership and strict enforcement of legal commitments.
Mexico on behalf of a group of Latin American countries, including Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Panamá, Perú, Honduras, Paraguay and Uruguay, expressed their grave concern at the effects of structural and systematic racism in individuals and societies. They called to give renewed importance to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and to adopt multidimensional strategies to promote genuine social, political and institutional changes to ensure equality and non-discrimination. They recalled that States are the primary duty bearers to prevent crimes motivated by racism, xenophobia or intolerance and stressed the importance of strengthening the dialogue with civil society on these issues. Finally, they highlighted how the COVID-19 crisis had demonstrated the need for solidarity, unity and substantive evaluation of the multiple dimension of racism and inequality.
State speakers were unanimous in condemning racism and discrimination in all its forms, while a large majority also lamented the widespread prevalence of excessive use of force in law enforcement, particularly in the context of peaceful protests. Though some States focused their attention on the situation in the United States in particular and a large number condemned the killing of George Floyd, many others recognised that the issue of racism is a global phenomenon, with several acknowledging their own domestic shortcomings in this regard. The international rules-based order and a renewed commitment to international legal obligations and standards was highlighted as an important avenue to developing equal and non-discriminatory societies. In this regard, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action were often brandished as solutions for protecting the rights and dignity of persons of African descent, while many pointed to the opportunity for engagement created by the International Decade for People of African Descent and related activities that seek to promote the full and equal participation of Afro-descendants.
Many States called for widespread institutional reform to combat systemic racist structures, as well as for critical appraisals of their root causes, notably slavery and colonialism. Several pointed to the important role of peaceful protests to ensure accountability and create the changes required by governments and law enforcement, exhorting all actors to exercise restraint and avoid violence in this context. Many States called on the Council to step up and fulfils its role of protector of the most vulnerable in societies, with a few States calling for the establishment of a commission of inquiry and others calling for greater involvement of the Special Procedure mandate holders. A number of States expressed their concern at the increase in online hate speech and pointed to the importance of education, including human rights education to combat the phenomenon. Ultimately, there was broad consensus that the international community had to do more to combat racism and discrimination, calling for greater global solidarity and people-centred approaches to law enforcement reform.
UNICEF delivered a statement drawing attention to how racism, xenophobia, discrimination and violence have a disproportionate and harmful impact on children who are still in evolving stages of physical and emotional maturity and development. UN women stressed the intersectional reality of racism and gender inequality, noting the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent comments on the greater risk of poverty, lack of education and professional development of women and girls of African descent. UNFPA ensured that they were scaling up activities in the context of the Decade of People of African Descent to promote and achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of just, peaceful and inclusive societies and institutions. The America Civil Liberties Union stressed that American policing had never been a neutral institution, pointing to a history of discriminatory practices and called for an independent international accountability mechanism to not only document and investigate extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black people, but also heavily militarized police violence against protesters and journalists.
During the 44th meeting of HRC43 member States considered the adoption of draft resolution L50 as orally revised on ‘The promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers’, presented by Burkina Faso on behalf of the Group of African States. They highlighted that the international response to tragic instances of brutality against persons of African descent demonstrates the urgent need for the Human Rights Council to raise its voice in condemnation. They noted that they had sought an independent investigatory framework but lowered their ask to achieve consensus because of the importance of showing that the Council had heard the plight of persons of African descent and was committed to the equal treatment of all. They therefore called on all member States to demonstrate solidarity by adopting the resolution by consensus.
Draft resolution L50 as orally revised was adopted by consensus with some countries expressing their reservations on paragraphs singling out a particular country situation.
The draft resolution ‘strongly condemns the continuing racially discriminatory and violent practices perpetrated by law enforcement agencies against Africans and people of African descent, in particular which led to the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minnesota’ (OP1) and further ‘deplores the recent incidents of excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers against peaceful demonstrators defending the rights of Africans and of people of African descent’(OP2).
It furthermore requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘with the assistance of relevant Special Mandate Holders, to prepare a report on systemic racism, violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the death of George Floyd and other Africans and of people of African descent, to contribute to accountability and redress for victims’ (OP3), as well as ‘to examine government responses to antiracism peaceful protests, including the alleged use of excessive force against protesters, bystanders and journalists’ (OP4), ‘provide an oral update on the preparation of her report to the Human Rights Council at its forty-fifth and forty-sixth sessions, and to present a comprehensive report to the Council at its forty-seventh session, followed by an interactive dialogue’ (OP4) and ‘include updates on police brutality against Africans and people of African descent in all her oral updates to the Council.’ (OP5).
The full text of HRC resolution 43/2 can be read here,
Featured Photo: Picture by Karen Eliot, 10 June 2020. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Urgent Debate on Police Brutality, Racism, People of African Descent, 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. 17 June 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights attends the Urgent Debate on Police Brutality, Racism, People of African Descent, 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. 17 June 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on racism addresses the Urgent Debate on Police Brutality, Racism, People of African Descent via a video message, 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. 17 June 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council listen to the video message of Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, Urgent Debate on Police Brutality, Racism, People of African Descent, 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. 17 June 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The representative of the Republic of Centrafica addresses during the Urgent Debate on Police Brutality, Racism, People of African Descent, 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. 17 June 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The representative of Mexico addresses during the Urgent Debate on Police Brutality, Racism, People of African Descent, 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. 17 June 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The representative of Seychelles addresses during the Urgent Debate on Police Brutality, Racism, People of African Descent, 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. 17 June 2020. UN Photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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