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.
Monday, February 3, 2020
The Vienna and Geneva offices of the United Nations were hacked. The hack was reported to be a sophisticated one that usually indicates espionage. Dozens of servers were compromised, including the Human Rights Office. According to ABC News, the level of sophistication was so high that a state-level actor is suspected. The UN claims that no sensitive information was obtained.
Reports claim that "The hack comes at a time when concerns about computer and mobile phone vulnerabilities, for large organizations such as governments and the U.N. as well as for individuals and businesses" and "there is no indication that data was exfiltrated from Vienna" which is the UN's home to their office on Drugs and Crime.
Monday, February 4, 2019
The US has never had a faithful relationship with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). When the UNESCO was young, the US wanted a voice in the education in Germany and other Axis countries to ensure that the history of World War II was taught accurately. Beyond a desire to influence education, the US never viewed UNESCO as an organization of influence.
During the Reagan administration, the US left UNESCO and then rejoined during the George W. Bust administration when in post-911 efforts to ensure the support of other nations, UNESCO was seen as a way to accomplish US goals. As more and more countries joined UNESCO the US's vote carried little influence while the US claims to be paying a disproportionately portion of the UNESCO budget.
US Funding for UNESCO was halted during the Obama administration because of the organization's recognition of the Palestinian state in 2011. At this point the US has accrued $600 million in unpaid dues. While the Trump administration announced the withdrawal in 2017, formal withdrawal happened last week. The Trump administration added claims that UNESCO has an anti-Israeli bias to the reasons for US withdrawal.
Monday, January 7, 2019
In an earlier blog post, we discussed the worries of human rights advocates, one of which was a concern that the US was no longer cooperating with international human rights reports. In a move that signals the US moving in that direction, the Guardian reported that the US has stopped responding to special rapporteur complaints of human rights violations within our borders.
Reportedly the US stopped responding to complaints last May. 13 inquiries have gone unanswered. The prior administration invited 16 Special Rapporteurs to visit the US. The current administration has invited none. The US responded badly to the June report filed by Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty criticizing the US failure to address poverty within its borders. Then UN Ambassador Nikki Haley fired back that the report was biased and time would be better spent investigating other countries. UN rapporteurs are unable to submit reports to the UN Human Rights Council without an official visit.
Without US cooperation concerns such as treatment of border migrants are unlikely to be investigated and reported by the UN. Unofficial visits can happen, of course, but resulting reports will not have official sanction of the UN Human Rights Council. Perhaps one remedy is for the Council to create another tier of reporting, one that would accommodate investigations that have not been invited by the country whose conditions are being investigated. Unofficial reporting of investigated conditions could be published, which would greatly assist local US advocates in dealing with municipalities to find remedies for inhumane conditions.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Reportedly, the Trump administration is considering withdrawing the US from the UN Human Rights Council.
The reported reasons are the council's treatment of the Jewish state as unfair. Other reasons include that countries with gross human rights violations are permitted to sit on the council. President George W. Bush had similar concerns, but President Obama reversed the Bush decision.
That the administration is considering withdrawal is no surprise, but nonetheless is another move with shocking consequences. One wonders about the integrity behind the concerns. A strong supporter of long-time ally Israel, Trump's protest is understandable. But what is concerning is that US withdrawal would come at a time when human rights are being restricted within our boarders. The immigration orders and enforcement tactics ignore human rights. Muhammad Ali, Jr. and his mother were detained at a Florida airport because of their names and reportedly were questioned extensively about their religion. A French historian who is a visiting professor at Texas A & M was detained for 10 hours and nearly deported. President Trump instructed law enforcement to make crimes committed by the undocumented "highly publicized" while at the same time NYT, CNN and others were prevented from attending a briefing with press secretary Spicer.
At the same time, women's rights and rights of minorities are waning. Assaults on women, Jews, Muslims, and racial minorities have increased since the inauguration, if not the election.
Refusal to participate by Pres. Bush did not carry the same veiled threat as does a refusal to participate made by President Trump. Non-participation at this point removes another possible source of help that might otherwise be available to US citizens who wish to stop the erosion of their human rights. While withdrawal may be symbolic in many ways, one of those symbols is an ongoing attempt to eliminate human rights in the US.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
One hundred forty characters is not really enough to do justice to the wide-ranging work of the United Nations. But that didn't stop President-elect Trump from trying to use his twitter account to do just that, calling the UN "just a club for people to have a good time." It's unfortunate that the President-elect doesn't have a better understanding of the UN's work and the US role in this international body.
First, it's worth noting that there is great depth of popular support for the UN within the United States. When the Pew Foundation conducted an in-depth study just this past spring, it found that 64 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the United Nations. While this number masked a significant partisan divide, with Democrats much more likely than Republicans to support the UN, the president-elect would do well to note that one of the key constituencies in his electoral college victory, Independents, also registered 64 percent support.
Second, the President-elect may be unaware of the importance of UN, and US, leadership in furthering human rights worldwide. For all of the internal critiques of the Obama administration's human rights record, the Administration's engagement with UN agencies over eight years has certainly increased global awareness of the positive aspects of US human rights achievements. Under Obama, the United States has regularly submitted reports to UN bodies concerning its human rights record and goals, a practice that then gives our country additional credibility when we criticize human rights failings elsewhere. Further, the current Administration has begun using the human rights reporting process to engage our own state and local governments in achieving -- and highlighting -- national human rights goals. Yes, we may use this platform to tout our own achievements (Obamacare is one of them), but these UN treaty monitoring bodies are far from feel-good social clubs. The international human rights dialogue moderated by these bodies is real and constructive, and the US would lose both stature and credibility it if scaled back its robust participation.
Finally, the incoming Administration's tweets do nothing to address the growing concern across America -- in states of all hues -- that human rights are of little import to the President-elect. This year's Human Rights Day on December 9 was accompanied by columns, op eds and protests around the country from concerned citizens. In 2008, even before he took the oath of office, the incoming President Obama issued a stirring statement on human rights day signalling US commitment to these issues. The President issued similar statements each year during his two terms, concluding with the Presidential Proclamation commemorating human rights week in 2016. Sadly, to date we've had only tweets from the incoming administration.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent was established in 2002 by the Commission on Human Rights. Among the Group's 2008 charges were to study the problems of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the diaspora and, to that end, gather all relevant information from Governments, non-governmental organizations and other relevant sources. The means of gathering relevant information include holding public meetings. The Group is instructed to propose measures to ensure full and effective access to the justice system by people of African descent.
The findngs document a US history of racial terrorism. Among the working group's findings are: "In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent," the report stated. "Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching."
Recognizing police killing of unarmed black men as having created a crisis, the Working Group reports that there is a sense of urgency to resolve this human rights crisis.
The Working Group made many suggestions that would go a long way in remedying institutional racism. Among the recommendations are:
Immediately abolish police in schools.
Police misconduct investigations to be conducted by independent investigators.
Misdemeanor laws that result in the over-charging and over-incarceration of people of color be abolished. One example given is South Carolina's law making a school disturbance a misdemeanor.
That younger prisoners be separated from adults and male prisoners from female ones.
The Group addressed reparations as one remedy. From apology and debt cancellation to educational and healthcare opportunities, the Group addressed steps that are critical to addressing the consequences of societal and institutional racism.
The problem with reparations is that in order to arrive at a place where Americans endorse them, the place where the culture is ready to recognize the harm must first be reached. We are a long way from there. Achieving recognition of the state's contributions to extreme suffering forced upon African Americans is not hopeless thanks to the new wave of activism, including Black Lives Matter. However, President Obama' election unleased racism across the country. Undermining the power of the first black president became the goal of those in the political and social systems. The fact that any new social legislation passed over the past eight years is nothing short of a miracle. The racism obvious in the current presidential election politics provides a vehicle for individuals to act on their persistent white supremacy beliefs. We will find out soon if political racism can be defeated in our upcoming elections.
But as the working group found, racial terrorism has created a crisis in America. Perhaps this crisis will collide with new wave activism and create a real opportunity for the country to admit the heinousness of the aftermath of slavery. One day it may be that a series of crisis or one horrendous crisis will result in a serious discussion on how to repair the damage we have done.
The findings are worth a read in their entirety. The Group brings to its report the clarity that often comes from outsiders looking in. The diagnoses of the problems is accurate and the suggested remedies thoughtful.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
This is turning out to be quite a year for U.S. engagement with UN human rights experts. Last month, at a meeting with U.S. human rights advocates, the State Department announced that three UN special procedures will make official visits to the United States between now and the end of the calendar year. Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, plans to visit the United States from July 11-25, 2016. The UN Working Group on arbitrary detentions and the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons will each visit the U.S. The trafficking expert's visit is set for December 5-16, 2016, while the Working Group dates are TBD. Special procedures (which include Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups) are independent human rights experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor human rights situations in specific countries or related to a thematic issue throughout the world.
The newly announced visits come on the heels of recent visits to the United States by the UN Working Group on discrimination against women (November 30-December 11, 2015) and the UN Working Group on people of African Descent (January 19-29, 2016). Each of those visits concluded with a strong press statement summarizing the group’s findings during the course of the visit. The Working Groups will present their formal reports and recommendations later this year.
These UN human rights experts are among the 41 special procedure thematic mandates covering a diverse range of issues, including torture, mercenaries, and the rights of human rights defenders, as well as education, migrants, and food. Special procedures base their evaluations on standards drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights norms. They are not limited in their review by whether a country has ratified a particular treaty, a fact that is especially relevant with respect to the United States.
The official country visit is a key working method of the special procedures. The experts may make such visits only upon receiving a formal invitation from the country’s government. One hundred and fifteen UN member countries, not including the United States, have issued a standing invitation to the special procedures. For several years, U.S. human rights advocates have urged the United States to invite the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, to examine solitary confinement practices in U.S. prisons, and to meet with people imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. has not yet extended an invitation allowing the requested access.
But special procedures aren’t limited to making official country visits. They also can receive and act on allegations of human rights recommendations from impacted individuals and communities, as well as conduct thematic studies and develop reports on crosscutting and systemic human rights concerns. And they can work more informally, including by conducting unofficial visits, participating in hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and issuing press statements. Just last week, three UN special procedures -- the Special Rapporteurs on housing, extreme poverty, and water and sanitation -- issued a joint press release on the human rights impacts of the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan, in advance of President Obama’s visit to Flint.
How can U.S. advocates make the most of the upcoming visits and other opportunities for engagement with these UN human rights experts? In 2015, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institutedeveloped a guide for effective advocacy with the UN special procedures, geared towards U.S. advocates. And, next month, the Institute is hosting a full day symposium (and free CLE) on the topic. (Registersoon, as space in limited.)
The US Human Rights Network (USHRN) will share information on the recently announced visits as such information becomes available. Join the USHRN’s International Mechanisms listserv to stay posted. And, if your organization is interested coordinating aspects of the visit, contact USHRN’s coordinating center.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Guest blogger Erin Smith of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute posts today on a new resource on how U.N. reviews of U.S. human rights are relevant to state and local governments. Erin writes:
In the last three years, the United States has undergone reviews of compliance with the core international human rights treaties it has ratified—the Race Convention, the Torture Convention, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the protocols to the Children’s Rights Convention addressing child soldiers and child trafficking and child pornography—as well as the more recently established Universal Periodic Review (the UPR) at the Human Rights Council. These reviews culminated in an array of recommendations for improving human rights protections in the United States, addressing many issues squarely within the jurisdiction of state and local governments, including housing, employment, criminal justice, and the rights of children.
While many state and local governments actively work in these areas, including through the efforts of mayors, city councils, and human rights agencies, the human rights frame helps governments to more effectively and proactively identify and address discrimination and inequity, including policies or programs that may not be intentionally discriminatory but that nonetheless have a disparate impact.
To foster greater awareness of the human rights recommendations, and their relationship to the work of human rights agencies, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute published a new resource this week. This resource summarizes the recent human rights recommendations that are most pertinent to the work of state and local human rights agencies. It provides examples of some of the ways state and local agencies can use these recommendations in their work and can be read in conjunction with a 2011 toolkit on the UPR.
Federal compliance with human rights norms—as well as federal support for state and local governments to engage in human rights work—is key, as the recent U.N. reviews emphasize. And the federal government has been taking some action in line with recommendations from treaty bodies and the UPR, including in the areas of criminalization of homelessness, employment, and criminal justice.
The federal government is also working to include both civil society and state and local governments in its implementation efforts. Indeed, earlier this year, the State Department announced its initial steps toward more coordinated implementation of U.N. recommendations, announcing a new structure of working groups to address the recent recommendations:
- Civil Rights and Discrimination
- Criminal Justice
- Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Indigenous Peoples, and the Environment
- National Security
- Immigration, Migrants, Trafficking, Labor, and Children
- Treaties, International Mechanisms, and Domestic Implementation
Led by federal agencies and departments, the working groups are slated to meet with civil society at least once a year, and their role is reportedly to review the UPR and treaty body recommendations and to identify actions the U.S. is taking to respond, as well as further opportunities to do more. The first meeting, scheduled for April 27th, will focus on Treaties, International Mechanisms, and Domestic Implementation. The State Department, charged with leading the group, has invited civil society as well as state and local government representatives to participate in the meeting.
State and local governments could offer a vital contribution to these working group dialogues. As the U.S. has repeatedly acknowledged, state and local governments stand at the “frontlines” in the fight to ensure human rights are respected and protected.
Significant progress in strengthening the U.S. human rights record will require federal, state, and local governments to establish greater coordination and cooperation around human rights, through the UPR working groups and beyond. This new resource offers a starting point for these efforts.
Sunday, March 6, 2016
Following September 2001, the United States government declared a ‘war on terror’ and embarked upon a program of extraordinary rendition and unlawful prisoner transfers, interrogation by torture, and a global system of detention outside the law. Since that time, there has been a concerted and global effort to bring about accountability for the U.S. rendition and torture program.
This policy report reviews new developments to obtain compliance with U.S. human rights obligations and relief for victims of torture, including U.S. commitments made to the UN Committee Against Torture and the UN Human Rights Council, the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on Torture, decisions by international and foreign courts, reports by journalists who continue to expose and educate the public about the U.S. Rendition and Interrogation Program, as well as the ongoing advocacy of committed human rights organizations.
These efforts have served to encourage accountability. While the U.S. government continues to refuse to “look back” and prevents torture victims from advancing their claims, it is nonetheless crucial to take stock of changed circumstances and determine how they may best serve ongoing advocacy efforts on behalf of torture victims. We believe that the task of advocates is to press into service the recent U.S. commitments, disclosures, judicial theories, advocacy strategies, and the global concerns that point to accountability and remedy for torture.