Thursday, August 6, 2020
By Peter Splinter
Exceptional developments in the UN Human Rights Council have created exceptional opportunities to combat racism and related police brutality.
On 8 June 2020, family members of victims of police killings in the United States and more than 600 civil society organizations from around the world wrote to members of the United Nations Human Rights Council to request them to urgently hold a special session on the USA.
In response, on 12 June, Ambassador Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri of Burkina Faso, acting on behalf of the African group on human rights in Geneva, wrote to the President of the Council, Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, to request an urgent debate on racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests. The Council held that debate on 17 June at its resumed 43rd regular session. Two days later, it adopted a consensus resolution A/HRC/RES/43/1 on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers.
The Council had mandated the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet to prepare a report on systemic racism and violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies.
In its resolution, the Council “strongly condemns the continuing racially discriminatory and violent practices perpetrated by law enforcement agencies against Africans and people of African descent, in particular which led to the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minnesota … and the deaths of other people of African descent, and further condemn the structural racism in the criminal justice system.”
The Council mandated the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, assisted by relevant Special Procedures, to prepare a report on systemic racism and violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies. This report is to contribute to accountability and redress for victims and give particular attention to the incidents that resulted in the death of George Floyd and other Africans and people of African descent. The High Commissioner is instructed to present the report to the Council in June 2021 and give oral updates in September 2020 and February/March 2021.
There is little reason to believe that other untouchable countries like China, Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt or Russia will be singled out for their systematic human rights violations in Council resolutions soon.
While the Council has held four previous urgent debates and 28 special sessions since its first meeting in June 2006, the urgent debate on June 17 and the resulting resolution are exceptional for addressing a human rights situation in a P5 country (the permanent members of the UN Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the USA) for the first time. Although neither the request for the debate nor the resolution say that they are about the USA, both are clearly about the USA. (The decisions on the USA and other P5 countries adopted under the Universal Periodic Review do not count because the UPR covers all countries, and its boiler plate decisions are routine outcomes.)
Time will tell how the consequences of the precedents in June will materialize, but unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that other untouchable countries like China, Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt or Russia will be singled out for their systematic human rights violations in Council resolutions soon. One could even speculate that the results of the urgent debate and the evident hypocrisy of some Western countries in seeking to defend the USA from accountability will further embolden China in trying to shape the Council to suit its own ends.
One also wonders what effect the debate, the resolution and the forthcoming report will have on the attitude of the USA towards the Council, which it quit in 2018. The failure of the USA to be elected to the Commission on Human Rights for the first time ever in 2001 fed American hostility to that body and contributed to the UN General Assembly decision to replace the Commission with the Council in 2006. The hostility of the current US administration to the Council was already clear, and the new resolution will only reinforce its disdain.
Resolution 43/1 presents the High Commissioner for Human Rights with both opportunities and thorny challenges in the report that she must write. The report represents a chance to draw focussed global attention to racism and related police brutality. However, one year is not long enough to prepare such a potentially complex report. The word-count limit on UN reports is an additional challenge (8,500 words). Moreover, the obscure but important statement of program budget implications for the resolution made it clear that resources required to prepare the report will not be available until the General Assembly approves them toward the end of 2020. The High Commissioner’s first oral update on the preparation of the report is due to the 45th session of the Human Rights Council, which is scheduled to begin on 14 September, this year.
The Geneva developments are a catalyst. Their value to the family members of victims of police killings and to the Black Lives Matter movement will depend in large part on what civil society makes of the process.
Putting aside the technical challenges, preparing the report also comes with substantial political challenges. While the report must address the effects of systemic racism and violations of human rights law in the USA, the mandate is not limited to the USA. The High Commissioner is tasked with looking into systemic racism and police brutality against Africans and people of African descent wherever they are, be it in the USA, Brazil, France, China, Jamaica, Libya, Nigeria, South Africa, or elsewhere. Will African countries accept that their resolution leads to such examinations in African countries? Will other countries and civil society organizations accept that it does not?
The true value of the debate, the resolution and the report will be assessed by the contributions they make to combating systemic racism and police violence against Africans and persons of African descent on the ground wherever those violations occur. The Geneva developments are a catalyst. Their value to the family members of victims of police killings and to the Black Lives Matter movement will depend in large part on what civil society makes of the process.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the 600-plus civil society organizations that prompted the urgent debate and other human rights defenders have an important responsibility to use the resolution in their national and local advocacy against racism and police brutality. They should encourage their national authorities to engage with the High Commissioner. They must also provide the timely high-quality information that she and the Special Procedures require to fulfill their responsibilities under the resolution to advance the struggle against racism and related police brutality and to provide a large measure of accountability and redress for the victims. Concern with the victims of racism and related police brutality must remain at the forefront of what is done next.
Peter Splinter is an independent human-rights consultant. He represented Amnesty International to the United Nations in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. In that role, he was closely involved in the establishment and operation of the Human Rights Council.