JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
On 17 and 18 June 2020 the United Nations Human Rights Council held an Urgent Debate, at the request of the Africa Group, on racial discrimination and police brutality. The Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achiume noted “The proximate catalyst for this debate is the recent police killing of George Floyd and many other Black people in the United States, and the breath-taking national and transnational uprising of the past two weeks against systemic racism in law enforcement”. The family of Goerge Floyd and the families of Black people who have been killed by law enforcement in the United States, over 600 civil society organisations, Special Mandate holders of the UN and the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent hoped the Urgent Debate would result in the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into racial dismcrimiation and police brutality in the United States.
By the time of the Urgent Debate, the once strong resolution, led by Burkina Faso on behalf of the Africa group, had been watered down to a very general resolution. African States experienced extreme pressure by powerful countries- “including countries that publicly voiced support for the need to take action in the face of systemic racism” to remove references to the United States and the call for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry (COI), exposing the hypocrisy of the Global North and their responses when there are calls to hold ‘one of their own’ accountable.
The resolution was passed without a vote.
The HRC Secretariat tweeted “#HRC43 adopts by consensus res. strongly condemning racially discriminatory & violent practices perpetrated by the law enforcement against Africans & people of African descent & excessive use of force against #peacefulprotest & calls on States to cooperate w/preparation of report”.
Unfortunately, Black people see the tactic of the co-option of liberation language as lip service and know all too well the insidious nature of racism to hide in plain sight.
This is not a victory. This is a blatant reminder of the power of white-supremacy to over and above all, protect itself.
Africans and people of African descent in the United States, and in the world are dying – at the hands of the police and because of institutions and governments that intentionally prevent them from accessing land, health care and material resources. It is not enough to acknowledge the existence of a problem – it needs to be met with real, intentional and direct action.
The special Rapporteur on racism highlighted that an important purpose of the UN human rights system and its international mechanisms is to ensure that, where national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect human rights, those subject to violations have some means of recourse. The president of the United States and his administration has repeatedly denied the existence of structural racism and has incited further violence through public statements calling on public authorities to deploy force against those organising around Black Lives Matter. In a stunning example of this, Trump held a campaign Rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth – 19 June that commemorates the day enslaved Africans became aware of their legal emancipation – two and half years after it was mandated by the law.
During the urgent debate, an overwhelming number of Global North countries used the pervasive and global nature of racism as a reason not to create a Commission of Independent Inquiry for any one specific country. Some States even lauded the United States as having strong democractic institutions. They rather called on the HRC to find solutions that would “unite and not divide” countries. African Americans, the very people whose everyday realities reflect the violence of structural racism, called specifically for a Commission of Inquiry. Rather than use their privilege and power to support a strong mechanism, white States rallied to make it impossible to directly hold another white state accountable for killing black people. In this Urgent Debate Global North states, in particular, made clear that they are in it to push their own interests, which are paternalistic and white supremist in nature.
The outcomes of the Urgent Debate highlight the double standards on who is held accountable for human rights violations. Global North states have impunity. The failure of not creating an urgent country-specific intervention means the only recourse against racial violence and brutality, is going to load the already overburdened Special Procedures mandates.
In another stunning blow to anti-racism advocacy at the HRC, in a statement at the end of the debate, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said “No provision has been included within the proposed 2020 Program and budget to accommodate these new activities… While OHCHR will make every effort to support the implementation of the mandate including within existing programs and activities, given the current financial environment for the organization, it is unlikely that the mandate can be fulfilled until the necessary resources are made available”.
We reiterate – the resolution passed at the Human Rights Council is not a victory for Black people in the United States, it is not a victory for Africans and people of African descent anywhere. African Americans called for direct and specific action against racial discrmination and police brutality in the United States. They called for one of the few international bodies able to do so, to hold the United States government accountable for killing black people with impunity. The council did not respond. This resolution is not a response to the ongoing slaughter of Africans and people of African descent in the United States. This resolution does not show the urgency with which racial discrmination and police brutality should be met. In watering down the language of the original text of the resolution, in the failure to establish a Commission on Inquiry, in the unwillingness of the OHCHR to make finances available for the implementation of the mandate, Western States at the HRC and indeed the HRC itself have shown that, to them, Black lives in fact do not matter.
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