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UN Condemns Systemic Racism, Police Violence

Unanimous Resolution Brings Scrutiny to Global Violations

Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

The United Nations Human Rights Council is moving against systemic racism and police violence – including in the United States.

On June 19, the 47-member council unanimously passed a resolution mandating that the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, together with UN experts prepare a global report on systemic racism and excessive use of force against people of African descent by law enforcement. The resolution specifically states the report should focus on the death of George Floyd in the US and other incidents resulting in the death of people of African descent “to contribute to accountability and redress for the victims.”

The resolution followed a debate held after a police officer in the US state of Minnesota killed George Floyd on May 25, sparking protests across the US and around the world. Floyd’s killing was the latest in a long history of US police killings of Black people, for which police have rarely been held accountable. During the debate, requested by the African group of nations, Floyd’s brother made a moving appeal to the UN rights body and over 120 speakers, including Human Rights Watch, took the floor, with many offering words of sympathy for Floyd’s family. Ambassadors, UN experts, and Bachelet had also condemned the killing and urged serious action to halt racist policing.
The resolution falls short of the comprehensive international inquiry demanded by hundreds of civil society organizations.

Still, the adopted text is a step in the right direction because, for the first time, it brings the issues of systemic racism and police violence in the US and around the world under international scrutiny. No country, no matter how powerful, should be exempt from Human Rights Council scrutiny.

For decades, Human Rights Watch has documented excessive use of force by police and racially discriminatory policing – most recently in the US, France, and Brazil – advocating for accountability and an end to policing approaches that disproportionately target Black and brown communities. Together with partner groups, we have also worked to change government programs, from education to health care, that deepen rather than remedy racial and ethnic inequality and leave far too many people mired in destitution and despair.

The adopted council resolution references the US while also repudiating structural racism globally. In addition to mandating a report on police killings of people of African descent, it asks the high commissioner to look at government responses to anti-racism peaceful protests, “including the alleged use of excessive force against protesters, bystanders and journalists.”

The US has long avoided meaningful attention from the Human Rights Council, and decided to withdraw from it in 2018 – becoming the first member to ever do so after being elected to a seat. Now that the US is in the spotlight, it’s crucial that civil society groups ensure that the council-mandated report and high commissioner updates keep the focus on the US to address the challenges faced by families like Floyd’s in seeking justice and accountability for police violence.

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