The Internationalisation of Black Lives Matter at the Human Rights Council

Written by

‘Black Lives Matter’ resonated at the Human Rights Council on 17 June during the urgent debate on the ‘current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests’. The stirring words of Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, the speech of Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the statements of leading human rights organisations such as the ACLU (joined by the US Human Rights Network), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International echoed the rallying cry of the resurgent social movement of the same name throughout the meeting. The debate was compelling in connecting George Floyd’s murder on a Minneapolis street on 25 May and the worldwide anti-racism protests it sparked with the UN’s principal human rights body at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. There was a sense of hope, even expectation, that this, the latest example of the ‘internationalisation’ of the struggle for racial justice in the United States, would lead not only to scrutiny, but also to meaningful accountability at the global level for the systemic human rights violations exposed by and unleashed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

More than 660 human rights organisations and the relatives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile and Michael Brown had previously jointly written to Council members calling for the debate ‘with the aim of mandating an independent inquiry into’ racist policing and allegations of excessive use of force in the US. As the ACLU’s Jamil Dakwar pointed out, this was an ‘accountability appeal … [that followed] the legacy of great Black leaders’ – notably W.E.B. Du Bois, who edited the 1947 NAACP petition to the newly established UN calling for ‘redress’, Martin Luther King Jr, who saw ‘planetizing our movement for social justice’ as essential, and Malcolm X, who endeavoured to ‘connect domestic freedom struggles to international human rights battles’. What motivated the human rights organisations to appeal to the Council members essentially reflected why such civil rights leaders had sought to internationalise their cause in the 1940s and 1960s: the failure of national laws, policies and institutions to effectively provide justice and accountability for African Americans; ‘the interlocking nature of the problems’ faced by anti-racism movements; a desire for the US government to protect human rights at home and not simply profess them abroad; and a belief in the proper ‘functioning’ and role of the UN system itself.

The focal point of the debate was action on draft resolution A/HRC/43/L.50, submitted by Burkino Faso on behalf of the Group of African States with the support of Iran and Palestine, strongly condemning systemic racism in law enforcement in the US and other countries and providing for the establishment of an independent international commission of inquiry in that regard. The setting up of a commission with a specific, if not exclusive, focus on the US would certainly have been historic given that, as a key UN tool for countering impunity and promoting accountability for serious human rights violations, such a body has never been previously established in relation to a state in the Global North (with the exception of Israel). (Currently, the Council has ongoing commission of inquiries in relation to Burundi and Syria, and has also previously mandated such commissions in relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Gaza, Eritrea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Cote D’Ivoire, Libya, and Lebanon). The establishment of a commission would mean global accountability for long-standing, endemic and ‘egregious violations’ experienced by African Americans, as E. Tendayi Achiume, the Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (‘Special Rapporteur’) forcefully argued during the urgent debate. In the run-up to the meeting, the case for a US-focussed commission was augmented by detailed and increasingly urgent statements by UN human rights experts calling attention to the protests against systemic racism in law enforcement, and condemning ‘modern-day racial terror lynchings’ and the crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in the US. In a rare intervention, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under its Early Warning and Action Procedures, also expressed alarm at the killing of George Floyd and the recurrence of police killings of African Americans, as well as concern about the excessive use of force against peaceful anti-racism protestors, media and bystanders. In another unusual move, the Working Group of experts on people of African descent and the Special Rapporteur issued a statement in support of the ‘strong, substantive resolution, as was originally drafted’.

Against this backdrop, the result of the urgent debate was profoundly disappointing; the adoption by consensus of a ‘very weak’ resolution that fails to set up a commission of inquiry and strips any mention of the US in its operative paragraphs. Instead, the outcome text requests the High Commissioner on Human Rights, ‘with the assistance of relevant Special Mandate Holders, to prepare a report on systemic racism’ in law enforcement, ‘especially those incidents that resulted in the death of George Floyd and other Africans and of people of African descent’. The frustration of some human rights advocates was instantaneous and palpable on the Twitter hashtag #HRC43; Defend Defenders’ Nicolas Agostini, a long-time UN advocate based in Geneva, tweeted it was a ‘disastrous dereliction of duty’ on the part of the Council, for example. Leading civil society organisations, including the ACLU and the ISHR, later issued releases indicating their view that the resolution is a ‘failure’, a real ‘[impediment to] genuine justice and accountability at the international level for issues of systemic racism and police violence in the US’, and even demonstrative of the complicity of many states, particularly Western ones, ‘in maintaining and perpetuating entrenched systems of racism and white supremacy’. The reason for the weakened text was behind-the-scenes influence, ‘extreme pressure’, and even ‘bullying’ of Council member states – particularly from many members of the Western European and Other States Group (WEOG), including Australia and Mexico – towards ensuring that the outcome resolution was generic rather than focussed upon the US, and did not provide for a commission of inquiry. The US, which had memorably withdrawn from the Council exactly two years previously, was thus able to rely on others to ensure that the resolution was diluted, even though its ambassador had stated that his country ‘was not above scrutiny’ on the very day of the debate.

In various ways, through their public rhetoric during the debate, the majority of states displayed a worrying aversion to ensuring global human rights accountability for the US. First, the reality of the ultimate, shocking trigger for the urgent debate seemed often hidden, even denied, in states’ comments. Whilst many states referred to the killing of George Floyd, it was almost always as a ‘tragedy’ or ‘tragic death’, as if it were an accident or misfortune. Similarly, the outrage and calls for action of protestors globally were reduced to passive expressions of ‘sadness’ by the diplomats of their states (e.g. Croatia on behalf of the EU). Second, the US seemed to be the elephant in the Assembly Hall for much of the debate, with the vast majority of states managing to avoid any direct mention of the US at all. When the US was cited by WEOG states, it was often with approval, to indicate ‘confidence’ in the US as an ‘open liberal democracy governed by the rule of law’ to ‘address issues appropriately’ (Australia), and only exceptionally to express ‘[concern] about the disproportionate use of force by the security services against the African-American community’ (Switzerland). The strongest statements for the original draft resolution came from South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, and also, predictably, Cuba, Venezuela, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, and Russia, states marked by serious human rights records. Third, many states argued that, since racism is a ‘global scourge’ or ‘problem’ (e.g. UK, Brazil, Germany), ‘no country should be singled out’ (e.g. Brazil, Australia), and that a ‘collaborative’ and ‘constructive’ approach (e.g. UK, Japan) that is unifying rather than divisive ought to be embraced – a claim that justified the deflection of the Council’s attention away from the US. It is perhaps ironic that this strategy, of shielding the US on the basis that racism is a universal challenge, only serves to reinforce the intense exceptionalism of the Trump administration, as proven by Secretary of State Pompeo’s remarks following the resolution’s adoption.

Notwithstanding the initial sense of deep disappointment surrounding the adopted resolution, reasons for hope can and should be taken away from the urgent debate. How the resolution is understood, projected, and deployed as the basis for future action is what matters. As human rights organisations have encouragingly recognised, the text ‘opens the door to bring increased international attention to violations both by the U.S. and other powerful states in  future’, while the High Commissioner’s report it mandates ‘could provide a useful opportunity for continued advocacy for meaningful change’ and ‘a tool for documenting injustices and violations in the U.S. and elsewhere.’ Moreover, as a result of the resolution, the debate and the prior outputs of UN experts, systemic racism has suddenly and justifiably become once again a major subject of UN concern in a way that has not been seen since the end of apartheid; the internationalisation of a global fight for racial justice has been revived. Furthermore, it can no longer be countenanced that an influential state, including the US, could never be considered the subject of a commission of inquiry. As a feature of our extraordinary times, the call of ‘Black Lives Matter’ could yet be part of the ‘jolt’ seemingly required to embolden the Council and the UN more generally to speak truth to powerful states, including the US.     

Editor’s Note: This post forms part of our ongoing symposium on Black Lives Matter. All posts in this symposium will be available, as they are published, to read here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post are closed