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UN rights council to investigate systemic racism following Floyd killing

UN delegates during the vote of a resolution condemning structural racism and police brutality [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 June, 2020

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UNHRC will investigate systemic racism and discrimination against Black people, stopping short of a more intensive investigation singling out the US.
The UN’s top human rights body agreed unanimously Friday to commission a UN report on systemic racism and discrimination against Black people, while stopping short of ordering a more intensive investigation singling out the United States after the death of George Floyd sparked worldwide demonstrations.

The Human Rights Council approved a consensus resolution following days of grappling over language after African nations backed away from their initial push for a commission of inquiry, the council's most intrusive form of scrutiny, focusing more on the US.

Instead, the resolution calls for a simple and more generic report to be written by the UN human rights chief's office and outside experts.

The aim is "to contribute to accountability and redress for victims" in the US and beyond, the resolution states.

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the measure fell far short of the level of scrutiny sought by hundreds of civil society organisations, but nonetheless set the stage for an unprecedented look at racism and police violence in the United States — over the efforts of US officials to avoid the council's attention — and showed even the most powerful countries could be held to account.

Iran and Palestine signed on among the co-sponsors for the resolution condemning “the continuing racially discriminatory and violent practices" by law enforcement against Africans and people of African descent “in particular which led to the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minnesota,” it says. Any state can sign on as a resolution co-sponsor at the council.

The approved text asks UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to examine governments' responses to peaceful anti-racism protests and to report back to the council in June next year. It asked her to also include updates on police brutality against Africans and people of African descent in her regular updates to the council between now and then.

The council on Thursday wrapped up an urgent debate on racism and police brutality that was called in the wake of Floyd's death last month that sparked Black Lives Matter protests worldwide.

It came after Floyd's relatives, families of other black victims of US police violence, and hundreds of advocacy groups urged the panel to hold a special session on the issue — which it did not.

Floyd, an African-American, died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes as Floyd pleaded for air and eventually stopped moving. His death prompted a wave of outrage.

The African countries that brought the issue to the Human Rights Council measure insisted upon the urgency of the moment, citing an exceptional chance to train a spotlight on decades of racial discrimination in the United States.

Some member countries of the Human Rights Council — notably, the Western democracies like the United States — expressed reticence about singling out the US Envoys from some Latin American countries lamented how back-and-forth haggling over such an important issue came as their capitals back home were largely preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic.

One key US ally suggested the focus on the United States distracted from the need for a stronger, more global condemnation of racism.

“We would have appreciated more time for discussions and negotiation of the text of the resolution,” German Ambassador Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg. “Racism is a global problem. The fight against racism should unite us rather than divide us. Hence, we are against singling out one state."

The envoy of Venezuela, where the government under President Nicolas Maduro has been at odds with the United States, fired a verbal salvo at Washington.

“The vile murder of George Floyd has stripped bare the systemic racism, and the fascist and supremacist nature of Yankee imperialism,” Ambassador Jorge Valero said.

María del Socorro Flores Liera, Mexico’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, noted the timeliness of the resolution vote on Juneteenth, a day commemorating when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 and informed the enslaved Black people there that they were free.

The US mission in Geneva had no immediate comment on the resolution.

US officials have engaged in back-channel diplomacy as the text was being drawn up — but the United States is officially on the sidelines of the 47-nation council. The Trump administration pulled the US out two years ago, citing the council's alleged anti-Israel bias and acceptance of autocratic regimes with pockmarked rights records as members.

On Wednesday, the US ambassador in Geneva, Andrew Bremberg, acknowledged “shortcomings” in the United States including racial discrimination and insisted the government was “transparent” about dealing with it. He called the US the world’s “leading advocate” for human rights, adding: “We are not above scrutiny." But he said racism is a problem in many countries.

Human Rights Watch said the US had been trying to skirt attention on the issue.

“The efforts of the US to avoid council attention only highlights why such scrutiny is needed, and how far there is still to go to dismantle the pernicious structures of institutionalised racism,” said the group's Geneva director, John Fisher.

“No state, no matter how powerful, should be exempt from council scrutiny, and today’s resolution opens the door to bring increased international attention to violations both by the US and other powerful states in future,” he added.

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