GENEVA — The world’s top human rights body heard pleas on Wednesday to authorize two separate U.N.-mandated Commissions of Inquiry into racism and police violence against protesters in the United States and worldwide.
African nations, U.N. officials and diplomats, and George Floyd’s brother asked the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council to create two commissions that can act as powerful investigative tools against systemic racism and police brutality.
The council’s debate at the 55-nation African Union’s urgent request — which was originally scheduled to last for one to two days but has been extended until next week due to the large number of resolutions to be considered — began with U.N. officials highlighting the scourge of global racism.
It came in response to U.S. and global unrest over the killing of Floyd, a Black man, by a White police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. His death was captured on video, sparking global protests.
Some of the U.N. officials, diplomats and human rights experts who spoke at the session did so from the council chamber in Geneva, where several wore face masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus; others spoke remotely by video conference.
The debate, broadcast live on U.N. Web TV, featured a video message from Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, backing the recommendation of U.N. and African officials that the council establish independent Commissions of Inquiry.
“You watched my brother die. That could have been me,” he said of his brother.
“I am my brother’s keeper. You in the United Nations are your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in America, and you have the power to help us get justice for my brother George Floyd,” he said. “I am asking you to help him. I am asking you to help me. I am asking you to help us — Black people in America.”
The world body’s No. 2 official, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, led off Wednesday’s council debate declaring “the poison of racism still rages, and so the fight must still be waged.”
Mohammed, a former Nigerian environment minister, called on the world to “end racism in all it obnoxious forms.” Numerous speakers emphasized that racism plagues all nations and must be addressed everywhere.
“Across the world, Afro-descendants continue to be trapped in generational cycles of poverty created by unfair obstacles to their development. They receive unequal services, and face unjustifiable housing and employment practises. Racial profiling is widespread,” Mohammed said in her speech.
“And because of poverty and structural racism, they are also among the communities hardest hit by COVID-19. As we recover from the pandemic, returning to these systems is out of the question,” she said. “We also need measures that will genuinely re-set law enforcement. The battle against racism did not end with this or that legislation, and racism was not vanquished by this or that election.”
The two-day debate was called to examine “racially inspired human rights violations, systematic racism, police brutality and the violence against peaceful protests,” according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR.
The U.N. special rapporteur for racism, U.S.-based legal expert E. Tendayi Achiume, recommended that the council authorize two separate international Commissions of Inquiry into racism, police brutality and violence against journalists covering the protests: one for the United States, the other with a global mandate.
Achiume, a Zambian-born law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, said “injustice and discrimination is so deeply entrenched in law enforcement” that a U.N. commission is needed to help the United States eradicate it.
Failure to do so, she added, would show that “Black lives don’t matter.” But the issues are of such urgent global concern that another, worldwide U.N. commission is needed.
“The sad truth is that the case is not unique,” she said of Floyd’s killing.
The council says on its website that “United Nations mandated Commissions of Inquiry, fact-finding missions and investigations are increasingly being used to respond to situations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, whether protracted or resulting from sudden events, and to promote accountability for such violations and counter impunity. ”
"I am asking you to help us get justice for my brother George Floyd. I am hoping you will establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate police killings of black people in America." Philonise Floyd, brother of slain #GeorgeFloyd, addresses the Human Rights Council. pic.twitter.com/goneLTGOz2
— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) June 17, 2020
‘Many generations of pain’
Michelle Bachelet, the OHCHR chief and a former president of Chile, noted that the U.S. protests over Floyd’s killing have spread to dozens of European countries and all around the world.
“That act of gratuitous brutality has come to symbolize the systemic racism that harms millions of people of African descent — causing pervasive, daily, lifelong, generational and, too-often, lethal harm,” said Bachelet.
“It has become emblematic of the excessive use of disproportionate force by law enforcement — against people of African descent, against people of color, and against indigenous peoples and racial and ethnic minorities in many countries across the globe,” she said. “It has brought to a head the outrage of people who feel they are neither adequately served, nor adequately heard, by their governments.”
Bachelet said today’s protests are the culmination of “many generations of pain, and long struggles for equality. Too little has changed, over too many years. We owe it to those who have gone before, as well as those to come, to seize this moment, at long last, to demand fundamental change and insist upon it.”
Venezuela’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Jorge Valero Briceño, said racism underpins imperialism and is a central tenet of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, and the global protests in response show a universal “yearning for freedom.”
Brazil’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Maria Nazareth Farani Azevêdo, noted, however, that racism is not limited to any one region of the world, and only a global approach by the world body will be effective.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, U.N. human rights experts have repeatedly called on U.S. authorities to address the nation’s systemic racism and police brutality, while urging an end to violence against demonstrators and journalists covering the protests.
Dozens of U.N. special rapporteurs like Achiume, each of whom functions as independent investigators, have also urged American leaders to use strong measures to eradicate racial discrimination and overhaul how Black communities are policed.
As the U.S. protests spread around the world, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and other high-ranking U.N. officials have called on all nations to dismantle systemic racism and discrimination.
At the council’s debate, however, the United States’ absence as a council member was apparent. Two years ago, Iceland filled the vacancy created by Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Human Rights Council.
Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the United States joined the Geneva-based council and become one of the few nations pushing to expose human rights tragedies in places like Cambodia, Congo and South Sudan. At times, it had been the sole nation willing to call out China for reported abuses and violations.
But the massive protests in the wake of Floyd’s killing put the spotlight back on the United States. Twice before, in 2011 and 2015, the council f0rmally reviewed the U.S. human rights record. Each time the international community drew attention to America’s endemic racism, discrimination and violence by police, and its widespread use of the death penalty. The third review is scheduled for next November.
On Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order calling for police reform. He condemned the actions of police officers involved in Floyd’s death, but he has remained silent about racism — in keeping with his political tactics of inflaming racial tensions and class resentment to appeal to his mostly White, nationalist supporters.
The United States’ U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Andrew Bremberg, said in a statement a week ago that the outpouring in the wake of Floyd’s senseless death “demonstrated the collective desire of Americans to overcome racial injustice in our nation.”