As the world knows, George Floyd, a black man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a store in Minneapolis, Minn., was killed on May 25 by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Chauvin had pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite Floyd being handcuffed and on the ground, crying “please” and “I can’t breathe.” Floyd was motionless and without a pulse for the last three of those nearly nine minutes.
Although Chauvin and three of his fellow officers were soon fired, there were no immediate charges or arrests. Peaceful protests calling for peace and justice and chanting “Black Lives Matter” immediately broke out in Minneapolis and other cities throughout the United States.
It took four days to charge and arrest Chauvin and another week to charge and arrest the three other officers accused of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder. By then, despite some incidents of violence and looting, as well as televised displays of police brutality and excessive use of force, the protests remained largely peaceful in cities in all 50 US states. Demonstrations of solidarity are also being held in cities across Europe and the rest of the world.
On May 28, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, remarked on the “long line of killings of unarmed African Americans by US police officers.” She was “dismayed to have to add George Floyd’s name to that of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many other unarmed African Americans who have died over the years at the hands of the police. . . . “
On May 29, UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted a call to “raise our voices against all expressions of racism and instances of racist behaviours” — a call he originally made on March 24 on the International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
On June 3, the UN leadership issued guidance effectively banning UN staff who wished to raise their own voices and to act on their own convictions — including those with personal experience as victims of racism and racial discrimination — from joining the peaceful protests.
While the UN guidance does not explicitly prohibit staff from participating in the protests, it makes it prohibitive for them to do so. The June 3 guidance cited certain staff regulations and explicitly concludes that “participation in public demonstrations in the current circumstances may not be consistent with the independence and impartiality required of . . . international civil servants.”
It is ironic to call upon UN staff to uphold human rights while requiring them to forfeit their own. It is disturbing to do so on the basis that exercising their freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly to protest racial discrimination and to call for equal justice calls into question their independence and impartiality.
Staff regulations 1.2 (f) and 1.2(h), cited by the UN leadership, actually confirm that staff members’ personal views and convictions, including their political and religious convictions, remain inviolable, and that they may exercise the right to vote and to participate in political activity. All these regulations require is that staffers’ public pronouncements and political activity do not “adversely reflect on their status, or on their integrity, independence and impartiality” as international civil servants.
In a statement issued on June 7, Clement Voule, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, called on the UN to lift the ban and to allow UN staff to exercise their right to peacefully protest. In his statement, he asked two questions: “Is peacefully protesting against racism . . . and for equality and for justice ‘a controversial matter’? Are human rights too ‘politically sensitive’ for UN staff to stand up publicly for?”
He noted that “the UN has been at the forefront of the fight against racism and discrimination.”
“This,” he said, “is the reason why people have taken to the streets and why UN staff should be able to join them.”
Calling for an end to racism and racial discrimination is a duty enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should not be regarded as controversial or partisan — whether in the US or elsewhere. It is a universal call shared by all people across the world — as witnessed on the streets of dozens of cities since Floyd’s murder and echoed by leaders of every race and every political party, including the leaders of the UN’s host country, host state and host city.
On June 1, at the same time as Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., was being forcibly cleared of such protesters, President Trump assured the nation, “I am your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
On June 3, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reminded New Yorkers that “we’re united.”
“We’re not black and white,” he added. “We’re not upstate and downstate. We’re not red and blue. We are one state, one community, and we came together that way with discipline, in fighting this COVID with discipline, in having our right to protest, but doing it peacefully and in a way that respects law and order.”
On June 7, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted the six-night curfew, after several days and nights of peaceful protests, announcing, “Yesterday and last night we saw the very best of our city.”
These statements confirm that whether it is in the US or elsewhere, there is nothing controversial or partisan about protesting peacefully against racism and racial discrimination while also respecting local laws and regulations. That includes any applicable curfews and public health guidelines relating to the Covid-19 crisis.
It is with pride and longing that we should look back to better and braver days in the UN’s 75-year history.
In 1965, the iconic Ralph Bunche — a co-drafter of the UN Charter, the first African-American man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1950, and then a UN under secretary-general for Special Political Affairs — marched side by side with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. According to the UN’s own tribute to Bunche, he told supporters at the Montgomery Statehouse that the UN was with them.
“In the UN, we have known from the beginning that secure foundations for peace in the world can be built only upon the principle and practice of equal rights and status for all peoples, respect and dignity for all,” Bunche said.
As recently as 2014, Ban Ki-moon, then the UN secretary-general, joined a climate change march in Washington, saying: “I will link arms with those marching for climate action. . . . We stand with them on the right side of this key issue for our common future.”
On June 9, in response to the outcry of UN staff and human-rights special rapporteurs, Secretary-General Guterres sent a letter to the staff condemning the plague of racism and clarifying that the administration’s earlier guidance “does not in any way indicate that staff are to remain neutral or impartial in the face of racism.
“To the contrary, there is no ban on personal expressions of solidarity or acts of peaceful civic engagement, provided they are carried out in an entirely private capacity; rather, the guidance was meant to emphasize the need to balance such activities with one’s best judgement as international civil servants and our official duties.”
The letter is closer but not quite up to the UN’s “proud record of fighting racism and all forms of discrimination” to which it refers.
To be consistent with the UN’s proud record and the legacy of Bunche, it would not only be appropriate for UN staff but also the UN itself to join the peaceful protests — demanding peace and justice for victims of racism and accountability for those charged with the murder of unarmed black men and women.
Marching on the side of justice and racial equality does not call into question the integrity, independence or impartiality of the organization or its staff. Quite the contrary, doing so must be regarded as a true expression of those very attributes.
Mona Ali Khalil is an internationally recognized public international lawyer with 25 years of UN and other experience, including as a former senior legal officer in the UN and in the IAEA, with expertise in peacekeeping, peace enforcement, disarmament and counterterrorism. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in international relations from Harvard University and a master’s in foreign service and a J.D. from Georgetown University. She is an affiliate of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. She is the founder and director of MAK LAW INTERNATIONAL, an advisory and strategic consulting service assisting governments and intergovernmental organizations in the service of “We the Peoples.”