Sunday, June 21, 2020
Editors' Note: We continue our symposium in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd's death with this post on the United Nation's response.
By Guest Contributor Prof. Gay McDougall
Senior Fellow and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence
Leitner Center for International Law and Justice/Center for Race, Law and Justice
Fordham University School of Law
Former Vice Chair, UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Former UN Special Rapporteur on Minorities
This week governments and civil society around the world joined forces to pressure the UN to adopt a resolution responding to the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed African Americans. The resolution passed on June 19th, 2020, celebrated by Black Americans as the day of emancipation from enslavement, was historic in many ways and in some ways disappointing.
The original draft that was introduced by the African Group at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, was a response to a letter from the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile, together with Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and over 670 rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Human Rights Network, and myself as Senior Advisor, wrote a Coalition Letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council appealing that it swiftly convene a special session to investigate the escalating situation of police violence and repression of protests in the United States.
“Mamie Till Mobley made a decision to open the casket of her son Emmett Till so the world could see the atrocities Black people faced in America. I want people across the world and the leaders in the United Nations to see the video of my brother George Floyd, to listen to his cry for help, and I want them to answer his cry,” said Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd. “I appeal to the United Nations to help him. Help me. Help us. Help Black men and women in America.”
The Coalition Letter warned of an “unfolding grave human rights crisis” in the United States and describes the recent police killings of unarmed Black people as well as police use of excessive force to suppress protests as violations of United States obligations under international law. It called on the U.N. to mandate an independent inquiry into the killings and violent law enforcement responses to protests, including the attacks against protesters and journalists. The letter also calls for a U.N. investigation into President Trump’s order that maximum force be used.
“We are greatly concerned that rather than using his position to serve as a force for calm and unity, President Trump has chosen to weaponize the tensions through his rhetoric, evidenced by his promise to seize authority from Governors who fail to take the most extreme tactics against protestors and to deploy federal armed forces against protestors (an action which would be of questionable legality).”
“Our greatest concern is that the violence and counter-violence are diverting the gaze of the global community away from the pain being expressed by a nation in mourning over the callous manner of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that ended George Floyd’s life while a group of police stood and watched, about the death of more than 100,000 souls from the coronavirus – disproportionately killing Black, Brown and Indigenous people – and about how injustice never ends and equality never comes. There is serious concern that the tear gas and police-induced havoc will obscure the legitimate passion of these demonstrations. The voices of the demonstrators must be heard. Their demand is that the endemic racism, hatred, fear and disparity finally be confronted.”
The call for a meaningful response from the UN Human Rights Council was joined by other human rights officials: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “we need to raise our voices against all expressions of racism and instances of racist behavior.” The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, called for serious action to halt US police killings of unarmed African Americans and a Joint statement by 45 Special Procedures Experts of the HR Council said “[t]he uprising nationally is a protest against systemic racism that produces state-sponsored racial violence, and licenses impunity for this violence.”
The CERD Committee issued a very strong statement under its Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures expressing grave concern over the “horrific killing of George Floyd” and calls for accountability and immediate and appropriate reforms aimed at eliminating racially disparate impacts or structural discrimination in the police and the criminal justice system.
In a joint OpEd signed by all the Under-Secretary Generals of the UN, they committed to take effective actions that will go beyond words.
And the African Group (which represents 54 UN Member States from the African continent) requested an “urgent debate” during the Human Rights Council session “on the current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and the violence against peaceful protest.”
In an unprecedented move, the Human Rights Council session began with a video appeal from the Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achi---, that broke with all traditions of diplomatic double-speak in challenging the Council to not miss this chance to be on the right side of history. That was followed by an impassioned appeal by video from the brother of George Floyd.
As negotiations started on the strong draft resolution submitted by the African Group, it became clear that we were up against formidable headwinds. We were told that representatives of the US were “bullying” delegates: for example, threatening to impact the foreign assistance to their countries unless all references to the US is deleted along with the call for the establishment of a commission of inquiry—even demanding the name of George Floyd be deleted. Over the next few days, the forces against us succeeded in watering down the resolution until only its bare bones remained.
Still, the final resolution calls on the High Commissioner to prepare a comprehensive report on systematic racism, policing practices such as that led to the killing of George Floyd, violence against protesters, and related incidents globally. This is a significant step forward in a continuing struggle.