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U.N. to Hold Debate On U.S. Police Violence

After families of people killed by police asked the organization to investigate racist American policing, 54 African nations called for a debate on the treatment of Black Americans. The debate will happen today.

The United Nations emblem is seen in front of the United Nations Office (UNOG) on June 8, 2008 in Geneva, Switzerland.Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

This morning, the United Nations Human Rights Council will hold a debate about racism and police violence against protesters in the U.S. that could constitute human rights violations. Fifty-four African countries requested the debate after the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile sent a letter to the council requesting a special session to investigate anti-democratic and racist police practices in the U.S. More than 600 human and civil rights organizations from over 60 countries co-signed the families’ request. 

The U.N. debate comes after police arrested more than 10,000 people who took to the streets in hundreds of U.S. cities in all 50 states to protest police violence. In the weeks after Floyd’s murder, police departments assaulted journalists, arrested legal observers and medics, “kettled” protesters to escalate engagements, and even attacked elected officials who joined protests. 

The letter from families of people killed by the police emphasizes that law enforcement responded to protests against police brutality with unprovoked violence, violating international standards on use of force. Specifically, it condemns the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against people exercising their First Amendment rights. The letter also requests an investigation into the history of racist policing and related violence in the U.S., as police practices almost certainly violate the U.N.’s convention against racial discrimination. “We have exhausted our domestic legal remedies on prior countless occasions to no avail,” said Ben Crump, the attorney representing Floyd’s family. “The George Floyd family appeals to the United Nations to intervene in his murder.” 

The United Nations has not been silent on police violence. On Friday, its Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a statement condemning police violence and calling for investigations and reform. In May, its high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemned the murder of George Floyd and called for accountability from the Minneapolis Police Department. In 2017, the organization’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published the findings of his investigation into poverty in the U.S. The report noted that Black Americans are disproportionately “targeted for criminalization” and systematically disenfranchised. 

Advocates hope that an independent investigation by the U.N. will bolster activist efforts to reduce police power. Jamil Dakwar, the ACLU’s Human Rights Program director, told The Appeal that the goal of convening a special session is to conduct a historically precise fact-finding process that can serve as the basis for domestic and international pressure for change. One historical parallel of this effort would be the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in 1995 to create an authoritative record of human rights violations in apartheid in South Africa. Some U.S. police departments and cities have already entered into their own fact-finding processes with the assistance of historians and community members who witnessed police racism and brutality. 

“The United States preaches to other countries what it doesn’t practice,” Dakwar said. “[The U.S.] exempts itself, historically, from these same [domestic accountability] standards.” Indeed, human rights advocates say that violence against Black Americans undermines the legitimacy of America’s imperialist interventions, which are typically justified by human rights violations and undemocratic practices abroad. In a June 8 press release, U.S. Human Rights Network executive director Salimah Hankins said, “We believe it is important to move this issue to the international stage to highlight the hypocrisy of the U.S. government’s stance, where it calls out human rights abuses abroad, but ignores government-sanctioned violence at home.”

The Trump administration appears to recognize that this analysis threatens U.S. power on the international stage; Dakwar told The Appeal in an email that “the administration was ‘bullying’ African countries regarding the possibility of scrutinising the United States at the Council.” In an email to The Appeal, a U.S. State Department spokesperson did not confirm or deny Dakwar’s allegation, and instead emphasized that the U.S. is open to discussing racism and police violence. The spokesperson also cited comments made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week that he shares “America’s outrage at the brutal killing of George Floyd and concerns about turmoil sweeping our cities.” 

There’s strong historical precedent for an international approach to ending police violence against Black Americans. In 1947, W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP sent a statement to the U.N. that documented human and civil rights violations against Black people and demanded accountability. That statement was issued at the outset of the Cold War, when the U.S. sought to establish itself as a moral leader and paragon of global democracy. In 1964, Malcolm X embarked on a campaign to “internationalize” the struggle for equal treatment of Black Americans. In his appeal to heads of African nations, he wrote: “If United States Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg a few weeks ago, could find legal grounds to threaten to bring Russia before the United Nations and charge her with violating the human rights of less than three million Russian Jews—what makes our African brothers hesitate to bring the United States Government before the United Nations and charge her with violating the human rights of 22 million African‐Americans?” Malcolm X’s assassination in February 1965 left that work uncompleted. 

But as if to prove his point, the international community has offered increasingly bold condemnations of police brutality and racism in the U.S. The Scottish Parliament recently called for a ban on exports of tear gas, riot gear, and rubber bullets to the U.S.; following the vote, the leader of Scotland’s Green Party said “it is unacceptable for us to be … putting those weapons into the hands of people who will brutalize marginalized communities.” In late May, the head of the African Union Commission, representing 55 African member states, also condemned the killing of George Floyd. Additionally, Chinese state media has aired extensive coverage of protests in the U.S. and condemned racist police practices, although the gesture may be a response to the U.S. Congress’s condemnation of China’s ethnic cleansing efforts

Advocates say they hope the U.N. debate will foment international solidarity with Black Americans and contribute to local organizers’ efforts to reallocate police funds to community organizations, healthcare, housing, and employment.