In the 1960s, the African-American activist Malcolm X launched a lobbying campaign to “internationalize” the civil rights movement in the United States by calling on the United Nations to focus on the lives of black Americans through a human-rights lens.
“When you expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights,” Malcolm X said on April 3, 1964, “you can then take the case of the black man in this country before the nations in the U.N.”
To begin his global campaign, Malcolm X lobbied African countries during an Organization of African Unity meeting (now the African Union) to ask them to bring the cause to the UN.
It was a revelatory moment for the movement, and today a group of African countries are once again drawing attention to racial discrimination in the US through the UN. The small nation of Burkina Faso, on behalf of African countries, asked the Human Rights Council to do so urgently this week.
Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City in 1965, and 55 years later, the UN has pretty much avoided interfering or remarking directly on US domestic affairs as much as possible. That includes the UN staying relatively quiet on the recent mass protests in the US reacting to the killing of George Floyd, an African-American, in Minnesota on May 25.
Protesters took over the streets across the US and worldwide to denounce racism and police brutality, internationalizing the issue the way Malcolm X envisioned. The current movement has been called “the unfinished work of Malcolm X.”
Responding to the African group’s request, on June 17 the UN Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, will hold a debate on “systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests” in the US and elsewhere.
The Council is also working on a resolution, according to a draft obtained by PassBlue. It calls on, among other things, to establish an independent international commission of inquiry focused on the US. It is the first time the Council has ever discussed the issue of African-Americans in the US, a Council spokesperson confirmed.
In the US’ last Universal Periodic Review in 2015 — a human-rights review done by a Council working group — the issue of police brutality, particularly against people of Africa descent, was a dominant topic raised by member states.
It has been a long run for African-Americans to get their cause directly heard at the world’s highest platform for human rights, and it happens as the US is distancing itself from the UN in unprecedented ways, withdrawing from an array of international treaties and UN organizations under the Trump administration. The US stormed out of the Human Rights Council in June 2018, citing its “chronic bias against Israel.”
“It is convenient for the voting majority in the Council to condemn a country such as the USA,” a former high-level human-rights official at the UN told PassBlue, requesting anonymity. “But the attention of the Council should also be focused on communities facing similar problems elsewhere.”
Directly confronting the UN’s biggest financial donor — the US — for human-rights abuses is something a UN body does tactfully, even if the country is no longer a member of the Human Rights Council. One expert in Geneva described the US as part of a handful of “untouchable” countries when it comes to human rights, and the Council addressing the issue comes as a surprise. As such, it will look at the topic through a global perspective.
The current president of the Council, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, an Austrian, said in a press conference on June 15, “We think it is a moment to really discuss this issue, as you have seen with the demonstrations all over Europe, including here in Geneva.”
Malcolm X was not the first African-American to ask the UN to look at the plight of blacks in the US. A year after the UN Charter was signed in 1945, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, submitted a 96-page petition asking the new organization to look at the matter, unsuccessfully.
The Council session on June 17 also occurs after a group of about 600 nongovernmental organizations, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), wrote an open letter to Council members, calling for a special meeting to discuss “the Escalating Situation of Police Violence and Repression of Protests in the USA.”
After the third World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001, the UN established a working group of experts on people of African descent. The group looks at racism around the world and has traveled to the US as part of its work. A former special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Diène, visited the US in 2008 as well in his endeavors.
According to Human Rights Watch at the time, many of his recommendations were echoed by several other regional and international human-rights bodies, including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The 2001 conference, held in Durban, South Africa, was also deeply controversial, as a draft document equating Zionism with racism prompted the US and Israel to withdraw from the meeting. The final declaration and program of action did not contain the text that the US and Israel had objected to.
In addition to Burkina Faso’s recent initiative at the Human Rights Council, a group of more than 20 senior leaders in the UN who are African or of African descent, signed a hard-hitting statement published on June 12, expressing their outrage at “pervasive and systemic racism” and highlighting the need to “go beyond and do more” than offering condemnation. Signatories include Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, and Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Unaids.
As the US left the Council two years ago, it appears to be facing little resistance from within to holding the special session.
“By walking away from the Human Rights Council in 2018, the United States put itself in a much weaker position to respond constructively in a situation like this,” Peter Splinter, a former Amnesty International representative to the UN in Geneva, told PassBlue.
For some rights experts who follow the Council closely, the decision to hold the meeting reflects a tilting balance of power at the UN. With China taking a more prominent role at the world body, the door was wide open for it and like-minded countries to seize the moment to attack the US on the issue of racial discrimination. Even though the scope of the June 17 meeting is broad, it will probably focus mostly on the US.
The Council’s current membership of 47 countries includes numerous nations with poor records on human rights, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. (China is not a member.)
Historically, countries like Russia and Cuba have supported the cause of African-Americans’ equal rights in the US, especially during the height of the Cold War. These countries still sporadically point out the “hypocrisy” of the US on international human rights and the discrimination of African-Americans at home.
“Whenever issues of human rights were raised in Communist countries,” a former high-level UN human-rights official told PassBlue, “it was always convenient for the Soviet Union to raise the treatment of blacks in the US and elsewhere — as a sort of tit for tat.”
While the Council plans to discuss the US, some nongovernmental organizations are denouncing the Council for being relatively silent on human-rights abuses, for example, of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, China.
“If the Council membership uses the urgent debate about racially inspired human rights violations to focus only on the USA and remains silent about the Uighurs and Tibetans in China, this could be the occasion that China becomes the leading force in the Human Rights Council,” Splinter said.
Inside the UN
Discussing the human-rights situation of African-Americans is a sensitive matter inside the UN, including in its current mode of videoconferencing. When protesters began to hit the streets in New York City in late May and early June, UN leadership issued guidance to UN employees, banning them from joining peaceful protests to show support for victims of racial discrimination, spurred by the murder of George Floyd.
But after much outcry from UN personnel and rights experts, the UN changed its mind and encouraged staff members to express their opinions openly. Secretary-General António Guterres wrote to all UN staff member on June 9:
“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.”
In New York City, where protests continue, Malcolm X, who was also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was killed in 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, at Broadway and 165th Street. It was renovated and reopened in 2005 as the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center.
The family of Malcolm X participated in the opening ceremony, including one of his daughters, Malaak Shabazz, who, according to The New York Times, worked at the UN.
This article was updated to include information on the Human Rights Council’s history of discussing the status of African-Americans’ human rights in the US.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.