Geneva, Switzerland | AFP | The UN on Thursday wrapped up a historic debate about structural racism and police brutality in the United States and beyond — but rights groups voiced concern that countries might be backing away from committing to concrete action.
The urgent debate at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva went into a second day, with numerous countries and organisations outraged over police killings of African Americans like George Floyd.
But rights groups noted that a draft resolution that initially called for a high-level international investigation into police violence against people of African descent in the United States had been watered down and risked becoming just a general condemnation of racism globally.
“Some states are seeking to strip all references to the United States from the resolution,” Human Rights Watch’s Geneva director John Fisher told the council.
Doing so, he warned, “would transform it into an ‘all lives matter’ text, and risk making it so vague as to be meaningless.”
The American Civil Liberties Union meanwhile warned countries that “partial or half-baked measures of accountability won’t remedy structural racism.”
The council will vote on the draft resolution, presented by African countries, on Friday or Monday, its secretariat said.
The United States withdrew from the council in 2018 but keeps a wary eye on its deliberations. Washington complained of being singled out in the draft text, and a number of its allies, including Australia and Israel, spoke out against the US focus during the debate.
In its current form, the text calls for UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to investigate racism and civil liberties violations by the police against people of African descent in the United States.
The UN debate began on Wednesday, shortly before sacked Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe was charged with murder for shooting a fleeing 27-year-old black man in the back.
US President Donald Trump appeared in an interview Wednesday to defend the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks, saying “I thought it was a terrible situation, but you can’t resist a police officer. I hope he gets a fair shake because police have not been treated fairly in our country.”
Brooks’s shooting came less than three weeks after Floyd, 46, died in Minneapolis after a white police officer — since charged with murder — pressed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd’s death on May 25 fuelled a national and global uproar over racism and police brutality.
– Resolution watered down –
On the first day of the UN debate, which began with a minute of silence for Floyd, his brother Philonise made an impassioned speech via video link, saying his brother had been “tortured to death” as witnesses begged the officer to stop.
He urged them to establish an independent international commission of inquiry — one of the UN’s highest-level probes, generally reserved for major crises like the Syrian conflict.
An initial resolution text presented on Tuesday had proposed such an investigation.
The son of Martin Luther King Jr. also sent a letter to several embassies seeking support for the demand.
But the proposal was dropped and the resolution heavily watered down following stark opposition from Washington and some of its allies.
The second draft calls on Bachelet to “establish the facts and circumstances relating to the systemic racism, alleged violations of international human rights law and abuses against Africans and people of African descent” by law enforcement in the US and beyond — especially incidents that resulted in deaths.
But sources close to the process said the text was being revised again, and the final version was expected to have little or no mention of the United States.
– Hold US ‘accountable’ –
Washington would certainly welcome that.
“We are not above scrutiny; however, any HRC resolution on this topic that calls out countries by name should be inclusive, noting the many countries where racism is a problem to be addressed,” Andrew Bremberg, the US Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said in a statement.
He stressed “how transparent and responsive our government leaders are in holding violators accountable for their actions and reforming our own system.”
A further watering-down of the resolution would be a huge disappointment for the rights groups demanding firm action.
“This council must ensure that the outcome of this urgent debate is focused on efforts to hold the United States accountable,” the American Civil Liberties Union said.