17 June 2020
Speakers Urge the Council to Establish an International Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Systemic Racism in Law Enforcement in the United States
The Human Right Council this afternoon began an urgent debate on current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests. It heard calls from speakers for the Council to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States.
In her opening remarks, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council, said this urgent debate was being held at the request of Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group. She bowed to all the victims and kindly requested those present to observe a moment of silence.
Amina Mohammed, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, via video teleconference, said this was an urgent and necessary debate, given that Afro-descendants still faced poverty and structural racism, causing them to be, for instance, amongst the hardest hit communities by COVID-19.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasized that the wave of protests since the killing of George Floyd had been truly global. She encouraged the Council to heighten its focus on racism and racial discrimination, going beyond existing recommendations, and reiterated that “Black lives matter”.
Kwesi Quartey, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, said the African Union rejected the continued racial discrimination against black citizens of the United States, urging the international community to ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion.
E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on racism, via video message, on behalf of other mandate holders, urged the Council to create an international commission of inquiry with the necessary authority to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States.
Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, via video message, reiterated that none of the police officers were fired for his brother’s murder until mass protests took place worldwide, and requested the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate police killings of black people in America and the violence used against peaceful protesters.
In the discussion that followed, speakers thanked the African Group for putting this important topic on the agenda. For some of them, racist acts were not errors of the system in the United States, but rather functions of it, and racism was widespread in the administration of President Donald Trump. Other speakers stressed that racism was present everywhere and, consequently, no country should be singled out. Some endorsed the idea of creating an independent commission of inquiry, urging the Council to take action and not become a passive observer. Others expressed support for the United States’ recent steps to address racism, police brutality and violent responses to peaceful demonstrations, noting, for example, the charging of officers over George Floyd’s death, the removal of others responsible for excessive force, as well as moves towards police reform.
Speakers noted that the responsibility to protect human rights primarily rested with States. National policies should be revisited to better implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and governments should strengthen their dialogues with communities of people of African descent. Acknowledging their countries own histories of racism, some speakers chastised privileges based on race and said it was not enough for leaders to merely express their opposition to racism. “Black lives matter”, several speakers emphasized.
Speaking in the urgent debate were Central African Republic on behalf of the African Group, Indonesia on behalf of a group of countries, Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, Croatia on behalf of the European Union, Mexico on behalf of a group of countries, Marshall Islands, India, Venezuela, Brazil, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Uruguay, Netherlands, Armenia, Indonesia, Australia, Namibia, Nepal, Cameroon, Bahrain, Japan, Senegal, Nigeria, Fiji (video message), Bangladesh (video message), Spain, Togo, Ukraine, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UN Women, Jordan, Sweden, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Cuba, Seychelles, Botswana, Sierra Leone, France, Belgium, Liechtenstein, South Africa, Philippines (video message), United Nations Population Fund (video message), Syria, Jamaica, Morocco, United Nations Children’s Fund, Iran, Egypt, Canada, Colombia, State of Palestine, Sri Lanka, Lesotho, Russian Federation, China and Switzerland.
The meetings of the forty-third regular session of the Human Rights Council can be followed on the webcast of UN Web TV.
The Council will next meet on Thursday, 18 June at 10 a.m. to conclude the urgent debate on current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests. It will then continue the interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Mali.
Statement by the President of the Human Rights Council
ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, recalled that on Friday, 12 June 2020, she had received a letter from Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group containing the formal request to hold this urgent debate on “the current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests”. She said she bowed to all the victims and asked those present to observe a moment of silence.
AMINA MOHAMMED, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, speaking via video teleconference, said this was an urgent and necessary debate. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shared the Council’s abhorrence of racism. As stated in an op-ed that had recently been published by senior United Nations officials who were African or of African descent: “Not enough can ever be said about the deep trauma and inter-generational suffering that has resulted from the racial injustice perpetrated through centuries, particularly against people of African descent. To merely condemn expressions and acts of racism is not enough. We must go beyond and do more.” Noting that most recent protests against racism had been triggered by the appalling killing of George Floyd, she stressed that racism spanned history and borders across the globe. Today, people were saying enough. The United Nations had a duty to respond to the anguish that racism caused, as equal rights were enshrined in the Charter.
Ms. Mohammed recalled that the crimes and negative impact of the transatlantic slave trade were still being felt today: Afro-descendants still faced poverty and structural racism, causing them to be, for instance, amongst the hardest hit communities by COVID-19. As all recovered from the pandemic, returning to these systems was absolutely out of the question. Calling for a reset of law enforcement, Ms. Mohammed emphasized that the poison of racism still raged and the fight against it must still be waged. The world must fight racism in all its obnoxious forms. On a personal note, she added that she, like Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that her granddaughter may live in a world where she was not judged by the colour of her skin but rather on the strength of her character. The United Nations, its leadership and staff, stood with all those who were pursuing the scourge of racism in all its forms.
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasized that the wave of protests since the killing of George Floyd had been truly global. The brutal act had come to symbolise systemic racism and the excessive use of disproportionate force by law enforcement that harmed millions of people of African descent, people of colour, indigenous peoples and racial and ethnic minorities across the globe. Given the transcending public support for a sea change, 20 fellow United Nations leaders of African origin or descent had written this week that the world needed to go beyond merely condemning racism. Decisive action was required to reform institutions and address pervasive racism that corroded them. Ms. Bachelet was heartened to see national and local measures in this regard, such as banning of the use of chokeholds, tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades by police forces. Behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism, and discriminatory policing lay the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism. To build a more solid foundation for equality the world needed to better understand the scope of systemic discrimination, with disaggregated data by ethnicity or race. It was also necessary to make amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms. Time was of the essence. Patience had run out. Black lives mattered. Indigenous lives mattered. The lives of people of colour mattered. All human beings were born equal in dignity and rights: that was what this Council, like her Office, stood for.
KWESI QUARTEY, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, welcomed the debate on the important and worrying issue of racial discrimination and human rights. The African Union rejected the continued racial discrimination against black citizens of the United States. This systemic discrimination could only be eradicated if the issues were examined from the roots. This was an opportunity for the international community to do so, and that required considering the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences. Yet images of a black man in London providing assistance to a far-right protester reminded that all were part of the same humanity. Racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia must not be allowed to erase all the achievements and development that humanity had reached. The African Union urged the international community to ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race, ethnic or religious origin.
E. TENDAYI ACHIUME, Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, speaking via video message, delivered a joint statement of behalf of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; the Working Group of Experts on people of African descent ; the Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of assembly and association ; and the Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.
In the United States, there could be no question that the problem was not one of isolated incidents of police misconduct, but rather it was one of systemic racism in law enforcement. Furthermore, it was a situation that required urgent and decisive action by the Human Rights Council. Nevertheless, the predominant messages from the President of the United States and his administration had been to deny the existence of systemic racism in law enforcement. Instead, he had inflamed national tensions through racialized divisive rhetoric and called on public authorities to deploy force against protestors. The response of the United States’ Government to the national uprising against systemic racism in law enforcement had re-enacted the very injustices that had driven people into the streets in the first place. Any resolution adopted by the Council at the conclusion of this debate must provide for an international commission of inquiry with the necessary authority to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States. Failure to establish an international commission of inquiry would signal that black lives do not matter, or that if they do, they do not matter enough to mobilize the Human Rights Council to intervene where it should.
PHILONISE FLOYD, brother of George Floyd, speaking via video message, emphasized that his brother was unarmed when he was killed after being accused of passing a counterfeit $ 20 bill. The Floyd family had had to watch the last moments of his life, as they were captured on camera. Witnesses had begged the officer to take his knee off George Floyd’s neck to save his life for four minutes after he stopped breathing. None of the police officers were fired for this murder until mass protests took place worldwide, highlighting the same lesson yet again: black lives do not matter in the United States. The police had used violence against people peacefully protesting for George Floyd, injuring and killing them by using tear gas, rubber bullets and running them over with police vehicles. The sad truth was that George Floyd’s case was not unique: it represented the way black people were treated by police in the United States. Mr. Floyd emphasized that instead of watching the death of George, they could have witnessed his own death. He concluded his statement by asking the United Nations to help get justice for George Floyd and help all black people in the United States. Specifically, Mr. Floyd requested the Council to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate police killings of black people in the United States and the violence used against peaceful protesters.
Speakers strongly condemned the murder of George Floyd that was not justified, and all forms of racism, xenophobia and discrimination. The Committee against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had made multiple recommendations over the years regarding the issues of police brutality and racism. Some of these recommendations went back to 2006 and were still relevant today. It was hoped that this debate would renew the commitment to put in place and implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Speakers strongly condemned racially motivated violence and hatred, as well as attacks on peaceful protests and murders committed by police forces. Police forces played an important role in societies, but complaints of police violence were still common and marginalised people and communities were still unfairly treated by justice systems. Laws and practices must be people-centred in order to combat these problems within police forces.
Speakers expressed concern about the increased use of the mass media to transmit racism, xenophobia and racist discrimination, calling for the promotion of education and mutual understanding between communities. Public policies aimed at fostering a domestic environment of tolerance, respect and peace must be strengthened. Speakers expressed deep concern over structural and systemic racism in all societies affecting minority groups the world over, emphasizing that States had the responsibility to prevent racist-driven crimes and ensure justice and accountability. It was time to unite in a firm, global and collective response.
Speakers thanked the African Group for putting this important topic on the agenda. For some of them, racism was an inherent element of imperialism; it was widespread in the administration of President Donald Trump. Other speakers stressed that racism was present everywhere and, consequently, no country should be singled out. Others expressed support for the United States’ recent steps to address racism, police brutality and violent responses to peaceful demonstrations, noting, for example, the charging of officers over George Floyd’s death, the removal of others responsible for excessive force, as well as moves towards police reform. Speakers stressed that people of African descent continued to face systemic discrimination in many countries. In that regard, the tragedy of the death of George Floyd was both a reminder and a wake-up call.
The challenge remained for nations to foster the necessary will to achieve what had been long promised to black people. The responsibility to protect human rights primarily rested with States. National policies should be revisited to better implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and governments should strengthen their dialogues with communities of people of African descent. Asian people had been subjected to racism in the context of COVID-19, some speakers pointed out. While some speakers stressed the need to ensure the enjoyment of the freedom of expression and related human rights, others emphasized the need for protesters to remain peaceful and refrain from destructing property. In addressing racism, it was paramount to ensure access to due process for all. Some called for a greater involvement of Special Procedure mandate holders. Acknowledging their countries’ own history of racism, some speakers chastised privileges based on race and said it was not enough for leaders to merely express their opposition to racism. “Black lives matter”, several speakers emphasized.
Girls and women of African descent were likely to be poorer and less educated amongst other forms of marginalization, all around the world. Racist acts constituted threats not only to individuals but also to societies and democracies. Speakers said that the timely response of the judiciary, including the latest ruling of the United States Supreme Court on the issue of non-discrimination, was yet another piece of evidence of democratic traditions and equality ideas being deeply rooted within the American society. Others said that racist acts were not errors of the system in the United States, but rather functions of it. The Human Rights Council must be the ultimate defender of the weak and do so particularly for the descendants and the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. All those present had a responsibility not to minimize the issue, not to generalize it and not to diminish it, because that would be a form of racism in itself.
Unequivocal support was reaffirmed for the International Decade for People of African Descent and related activities as designated by the United Nations. This initiative sought to guarantee the full and equal participation of Afro-descendants in all aspects of society; efforts should be redoubled towards its full realisation. Calling George Floyd’s killing an “execution,” some speakers said it reflected a long history of oppression, which dated back to the days of slavery, and was bringing the United States further from Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideal of a “beloved community”. Ascribing certain forms of racism to societal characteristics of “countries of the West,” speakers called for an end of the ideology of racial superiority.
Several speakers endorsed the idea of creating an independent commission of inquiry, urging the Council to take action and not become a passive observer. Some speakers expressed their sincere condolences to the family of George Floyd and deplored the use of social media platforms in inciting racial hatred. There were no easy fixes to racism, and building an equal society “begins with each of us”, speakers said. Racism and other forms of discrimination were still rampant and existed in all societies no matter how rich they were, others noted. No country was immune from the scourge of racism. Speakers urged the United States to take action to resolve the structural issues and economic inequality that had caused the recent events.
Citing race-related challenges they faced in their own countries, speakers said they remained conscious that the fight against racism was not won by words and proclamations alone, and called for all to look inwards to combat the legacies of slavery and colonialism that continued to haunt the world. The singular incident of the brutal death of George Floyd reflected a much wider, global problem of racism and racial discrimination. The Black Lives Matter-led protest movement had shaken the entire world. Quoting Malcom X, speakers said the matter at hand was not a “black problem” nor a “white problem”, but rather one that concerned all of humanity. Some speakers noted that Washington had ignored for decades the fair criticism of the international community and boycotted the work of the Human Rights Council. The confidence of the American administration in its messianic role as well as its impunity had led to the current tragedy.
For use of the information media; not an official record