Will the Human Rights Council’s Rare Steps to Combat Racism Make a Difference?

A Black Lives Matter protest in Philadelphia, June 2020. The UN’s top human-rights official must write a report within a year on systemic racism and violations of international human-rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law-enforcement entities. CREATIVE COMMONS

GENEVA — In early June, some family members of victims of police killings in the United States and more than 600 civil society organizations worldwide wrote to the United Nations Human Rights Council to request that it urgently hold a special session on the US. They did so in reaction to the grave human-rights crisis that resulted from the repression of nationwide protests, which were spurred by the 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 regional 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 the debate on June 17 at its resumed 43rd regular session.

Two days later, the Council adopted a consensus resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human-rights violations by law-enforcement officers.

In its 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 further condemn the structural racism in the criminal justice system.”

The Council has mandated that Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, assisted by relevant Special Procedures, write 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 contribute to accountability and redress for victims and to pay particular attention to the incidents that resulted in the death of Floyd and other Africans and people of African descent. The high commissioner must present the report to the Council in June 2021 and give oral updates in September 2020 and March 2021.

While the Council has held only four previous urgent debates and 28 special sessions since its first meeting in June 2006, the debate on June 17 and the ensuing resolution are exceptional for addressing, for the first time, a human-rights situation in a P5 country (the permanent members of the Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US). Although neither the request for the debate nor the resolution says that it is about the US, both are clearly about the country. (The decisions on the US and other P5 countries adopted under the Universal Periodic Review do not count because that exercise covers all countries, and its boiler-plate decisions are routine.)

Time will tell how the precedents set in June will materialize, but unfortunately there is little reason to believe that other untouchable countries like China, Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt or Russia will be singled out for their systematic human-rights violations in Council resolutions soon. One could even speculate that the results of the urgent debate and the evident hypocrisy of some Western countries in seeking to defend the US from accountability will further embolden China in trying to shape the Council to suit its own ends.

One also wonders what effect the debate, the resolution and the report will have on the attitude of the US toward the Council, which it quit in 2018. The failure of the US to be elected to the Commission on Human Rights for the first time ever in 2001 fed American hostility to that body and contributed to the decision to replace the Commission with the Council in 2006. The hostility of the current US administration to the Council was already clear, and the new resolution will only reinforce its disdain.

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Resolution 43/1 presents Bachelet with both opportunities and thorny challenges in the report she must produce. It represents a chance for her to draw global attention to racism and related police brutality. However, one year is not long enough to prepare such a potentially complex document. The word-count limit on UN reports is an additional challenge.

Moreover, the obscure but important statement of program budget implications for the resolution make it clear that the resources needed to prepare the report will not be available until the General Assembly approves them, toward the end of 2020. The high commissioner’s first oral update on the report is due to be presented to the 45th session of the Council, which is scheduled to begin on Sept. 14.

Putting aside the major technical challenges, preparing the report also entails substantial political challenges. While the report must address the effects of systemic racism and violations of human-rights law in the US, the mandate is not limited to the US. The high commissioner is tasked with looking into systemic racism and police brutality against Africans and people of African descent wherever they live, be it in the US, Brazil, France, China, Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya or elsewhere. Will African countries accept that the resolution they backed includes examinations of their own countries? Will other countries and civil society organizations accept that it does not?

The true value of the debate, the resolution and the report will be judged by the contributions they make to combating systemic racism and police violence against Africans and people of African descent on the ground, wherever the violations occur. The Geneva developments must be a catalyst. It will be important to learn about their value to the family members of victims of police killings and to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the 600-plus civil society organizations that prompted the debate as well as other human-rights defenders have an important responsibility to use the resolution in their national and local advocacy against racism and police brutality.

They should also encourage their national authorities to engage with the high commissioner, and they must provide the information that Bachelet and Special Procedures need to fulfill their responsibilities to advance the struggle against racism and related police brutality and provide accountability and redress for the victims.

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Peter Splinter

Peter Splinter

Peter Splinter is an independent human-rights consultant. He represented Amnesty International to the United Nations in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. In that role, he was closely involved in the establishment and operation of the Human Rights Council.

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