The World of International Organizations

U.N. experts condemn U.S. crackdowns

A U.S. protest in Washington by the White House (AN/Angela Napili)
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U.N. human rights experts called on U.S. authorities on Wednesday to end the use of violence towards demonstrators protesting systemic racism and police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

The three United Nations special rapporteurs, who function as independent investigators, urged American leaders to use strong measures to eradicate racial discrimination and overhaul how Black communities are policed.

Floyd, a Black man, was killed in police custody at Minneapolis on May 25. The 46-year-old man’s heart stopped beating as a White police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned him to the ground, keeping a knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

“Police abuse and excessive use of force during peaceful assemblies is inexcusable at any time but it is especially distressing when demonstrators are precisely calling for accountability on police brutality and systemic racism in policing,” the three U.N. experts, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, David Kaye and Agnes Callamard, said in a joint statement.

“Firing tear gas and beating peaceful protesters does not silence them,” they said. “It only reaffirms the urgency of the struggle for police reform and racial justice in the United States.”

Voule, a Togo activist and jurist, specializes in the rights to peaceful assembly. Kaye, an American law professor, focuses on freedom of opinion and expression. Callamard, a French political scientist who works in the U.S., leads investigations into extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

As special rapporteurs, they work with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, and report to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Three days after Floyd’s death, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile who heads OHCHR, condemned the killing, which was captured on video. “This is the latest in a long line of killings of unarmed African Americans by U.S. police officers and members of the public,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“I am dismayed to have to add George Floyd’s name to that of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many other unarmed African Americans who have died over the years at the hands of the police,” she said, “as well as people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin who were killed by armed members of the public.”

In the wake of Floyd’s death, protests have broken out nationwide and internationally. The response by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been to threaten the heavy use of force against protesters, human rights activists and journalists alike.

In Washington, Trump ordered National Guard troops and officers to “dominate” the streets. Some of the law enforcement officials called in to impose order did not identify themselves publicly.

The three experts said more recent video footage of a 75-year-old peace activist, Martin Gugino, receiving a head injury as he was pushed to the ground by police in Buffalo, N.Y. was an alarming example of U.S. militarization, including the use of 62,000 National Guard soldiers untrained in managing protests.

International law protects the right of everyone, including journalists and human rights defenders, to observe, monitor and report on such events,” the experts said. “Attacking and arresting journalists and human rights defenders who perform this important public duty is simply unacceptable.”

They condemned the use of unidentified law enforcement officials. Around the White House, officers resorted to tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful demonstrators while Trump crossed the street for a photo op at a church.

While the public’s demand for reform was inspiring, the experts said, the widespread arrests of protesters and crowded conditions of their detentions in a pandemic were “deeply disturbing” because of the grave risk of further spreading the coronavirus.

Global call to fight racism

Last Friday, the three U.N. rights experts were among a broader group of more than two dozen of their peers that called on the U.S. government to launch independent investigations and ensure accountability in all cases of excessive use of force by police.

“Exactly 99 years after the massacre in Tulsa, involving the killing of people of African descent and the massive loss of life, destruction of property and loss of wealth on ‘Black Wall Street,’ African Americans continue to experience racial terror in state-sponsored and privately organized violence,” the 28 U.N. rights experts said.

“The latest videos to surface showing White men chase, corner and execute a young man who was out jogging, or showing an officer kneeling with his weight on a man’s neck for eight minutes shock the conscience and evoke the very terror that the lynching regime in the United States was intended to inspire,” the experts said in a statement. “Given the track record of impunity for racial violence of this nature in the United States, Black people have good reason to fear for their lives.”

Separately, Kaye and another U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Uruguayan lawyer and journalist Edison Lanza, said they received many reports of journalists attacked, harassed, arrested and detained while covering the U.S. protests.

“Law enforcement has the duty to ensure the safety of journalists who are covering protests and to guarantee the right of the public to seek and receive information about these social mobilizations. The press plays an essential watchdog role in democratic societies,” the two investigators said in a statement.

“The targeting of media workers with lethal or less-lethal force for doing their work is prohibited under international human rights law and contrary to best policing standards,” they said. “Public authorities should condemn attacks against journalists and promote the role played by the press.”

Kaye and Lanza said Trump’s repeated attacks on news reporters as an ‘enemy of the people’ as a rallying cry for his political base have been a contributing factor to the current “environment of hostility and intolerance” towards journalists performing an essential watchdog role.

“We are deeply concerned that the militarization of policing in the United States not only interferes with the right to peacefully assemble but also limits the ability of the press to cover protests,” they said. “It encourages law enforcement to see protesters and journalists as belligerents, and we strongly encourage demilitarization and a reliance on international standards for the management of protests.”

More broadly, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged nations to step up the fight against systemic racism and discrimination as the U.S. protests spread to cities around the world.

He said the brutality of the Memorial Day killing of Floyd shows the urgency of a global issue.

“My position on racism is crystal clear: this scourge violates the U.N. Charter and debases our core values. Every day, in our work across the world, we strive to do our part to promote inclusion, justice, dignity and combat racism in all its manifestations,” said Guterres.

“It is clear that diversity is a richness, not a threat,” he said. “The societies that are diverse can only succeed if there is a massive investment in social cohesion, by governments, local authorities, civil society, churches, against discrimination and inequality.”

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