Fighting racism and police brutality: is there progress at the UN Human Rights Council?

On June 8, 2020, the family members of the victims of police killings in the United States and more than 600 civil society organizations from around the world opened a new chapter in the fight against racism. They wrote to members…

On June 8, 2020, the family members of the victims of police killings in the United States and more than 600 civil society organizations from around the world opened a new chapter in the fight against racism. They wrote to members of the United Nations Human Rights Council to request them to urgently hold a special session on the US to respond to the grave human rights crisis of repression of nationwide protests following the police murder of George Floyd and other unlawful killings of unarmed Black people by police and armed white vigilantes. 

In response, on June 12, 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 urgent debate on June 17 at its resumed 43rd regular session. Two days later, it adopted a consensus resolution A/HRC/RES/43/1 to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and people of African descent against the excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers. 

In that 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 also condemns the structural racism in the criminal justice system”. 

The resolution also 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. The report is to be presented to the Council in June 2021. 

The urgent debate and the resulting resolution are exceptional for addressing a human rights situation in a permanent member of the UN Security Council for the first time since the Council’s creation in 2006. Although neither the request for the debate nor the resolution specify that they pertain to the US, both clearly implicate that country. Time will tell whether this precedent will dispose Council membership to address situations of gross and systematic violations in other hitherto untouchable countries like China, Egypt, India, Russia or Saudi Arabia. 

One wonders what effect the debate, the resolution, and the forthcoming report will have on the attitude of the US towards the Council, which it quit in June 2018. The hostility of the current US administration to the Council was already clear, and the new resolution will only reinforce its disdain. Friends of the US and human rights champions should actively encourage a new US administration to engage positively with the High Commissioner in the preparation of her report as a step towards US re-engagement with the Council.   

Resolution 43/1 presents the High Commissioner with both opportunities and thorny challenges in the report that she must write. The report represents an occasion to draw focused global attention to racism and related police brutality in the lead-up to the twentieth anniversary of the Durban World Conference against Racism in 2021. However, one year is little time to prepare such a potentially complex report. The High Commissioner needs to act quickly and decisively.


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