UN Human Rights Commissioner Probing Racist Violence in US as Part of Worldwide Study After Trump Administration Blocked UN Human Rights Council US Inquiry

The UN high commissioner for human rights is probing “systemic racism, [and] violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies,” Marjorie Cohn reports.

Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 17, 2014. (Loavesofbread, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Marjorie Cohn

Shortly after the public lynching of George Floyd, the U.S. Human Rights Network and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) organized an international coalition of more than 600 organizations and individuals to urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to convene a commission of inquiry to investigate systemic racism and police brutality in the United States.

Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, addressed the Council by video, stating, “You in the United Nations are your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in America.” He implored the UN, “I’m asking you to help us — Black people in America.”

However, the Trump administration lobbied heavily against this investigation, objecting to limiting the inquiry to the U.S. The Council subsequently declined a request by a group of African countries within the Council to establish the inquiry commission. “The outcome is a result of the pressure, the bullying that the United States did, assisted by many of its allies,” said Jamil Dakwar, the ACLU’s human rights program director.

But the Council did task the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet with preparing a report by June 2021 on “systemic racism, violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the death of George Floyd and other Africans and people of African descent, to contribute to accountability and redress for victims.”

Madison, Wisconsin, Black Lives Matter protest, May 30, 2020. (Kenken Fager, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In Resolution 43/1, the Council did not limit the subject matter of the report to violations in the United States.

To assist in the preparation of Bachelet’s report, the Council called for input from several entities, including nongovernmental organizations.

The International Association of Democratic LawyersNational Conference of Black Lawyers and National Lawyers Guild responded to that call by establishing their own International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States.

Rutgers University law professor emeritus Lennox Hinds, who conceived of the idea for the commission, told Truthout, “This International Commission of Inquiry is an attempt to give voice to the international outrage resulting from the public lynching of George Floyd and to expose the racist and systemic nature of police violence against people of African descent in the United States and to hold the U.S. government accountable before the international community.”

50 US Cases 

Twelve commissioners, including prominent judges, lawyers, professors, advocates and UN special rapporteurs from Pakistan, South Africa, Japan, India, Nigeria, France, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom and the West Indies will hold public hearings from January 18 to February 6.

The commission will hear evidence in 50 cases of police violence that occurred throughout the United States from 2010-2020, including the killings of George Floyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice. Many resulted in the deaths of unarmed or nonthreatening African Americans.

Although the commission won’t have the money and resources a UN investigation would have commanded (were it not for Trump’s obstruction), the scope of this inquiry will go beyond the Council’s resolution by giving voice to the families of Black victims of police brutality.

Testimony of victims’ lawyers and family members, community representatives and acknowledged experts will occur in 25 cities via Zoom. The commissioners will prepare a report for submission to the UN high commissioner and the public by the end of March. They will be assisted in the hearings and preparation of their report by a team of four rapporteurs, including this writer. Students and faculty from Rutgers Law School will provide research support.

Michelle Bachelet (UN Photo)

The commissioners will ask the UN high commissioner to use our report to inform her report to the Council. We will also publicize our report widely in the United States and throughout the world for people to use in litigation and advocacy.

This will be a thorough investigation of anti-Black violence perpetrated by police in the United States. It will examine:

1) Cases of victims of police violence, extrajudicial killings and maiming of people of African descent and entrenched structural racism in police practices throughout the U.S.; and

2) The structural racism and bias in the criminal “justice” system that results in the impunity of law enforcement officers for violations of U.S. and international law.

The commission will analyze whether several instances of police violence against African Americans violated international law. A 2020 study of the 20 largest cities in the United States found none whose lethal force policies complied with international human rights law and standards.

Finally, the commission will consider the lack of accountability for violations of human rights, and recommend effective measures to end impunity in the future.

Three Treaties

Treaties the United States ratifies become part of U.S. law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. They are the “supreme law of the land.” The U.S. has ratified three human rights treaties that enshrine the right to life, the right to be free from torture and the right to be free from discrimination. All three require effective measures be taken for violations of the rights protected by those treaties.

During the hearings, the testimony will describe instances of police violence that deprived African Americans of the right to life, and the rights to be free from torture and discrimination.

“We want the [UN] high commissioner [Michelle Bachelet] to actually use this report,” said Kerry McLean, a member of the steering committee that is establishing the commission. “She’s not doing hearings, so we’re doing hearings.”

The hearings will be accessible to the public. The report and findings of the commission will be published in English.

Copyright Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and a member of the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.

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16 comments for “UN Human Rights Commissioner Probing Racist Violence in US as Part of Worldwide Study After Trump Administration Blocked UN Human Rights Council US Inquiry

  1. Vera Gottlieb
    December 29, 2020 at 09:47

    For as long as all these international UN agencies lack “the teeth” to enforce anything, this is as long as countries such the US will totally ignore law and order when they don’t suit. But don’t feel too bad America…you aren’t the only malefactor on this planet. And for as long as nations and people continue to remain silent and just look the other way…alas, nothing will change. Silence is consent…

  2. December 29, 2020 at 09:25

    As far a treaties go, only might makes right.

  3. Eddy
    December 28, 2020 at 20:25

    L. O. L. Seriously? The instigators of this actually believe it will make a difference, when at the same time it’s blatantly obvious U. S. Govt and authorities couldn’t care less what the law is. Remember, the Law is what those same authorities say it is. No amount of foreign interference is going to change that.

  4. December 28, 2020 at 18:07

    There have been several attempts in the past 75 years by people in the US to try to get help from the UN to do something about the genocide of Black and Indigenous people in the US by police.
    It would help if many US people added American voices to the effort. Please help. Please send an email.

    If the investigation does not see enough information or public interest in the investigation, the UN will more easily do nothing. The UN needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the problems pointing out that the methods to try to change this which the US federal, state and local governments allow have not workeds.

    Complaint Procedure Unit Human Rights Council Branch
    Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
    United Nations Office at Geneva
    CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
    Fax: (41 22) 917 90 11
    E-mail: CP @ohchr.org
    They will send a response.

    • December 29, 2020 at 00:00

      Thank you, Tom. I will send an email and hope others do too.

  5. Jeff Harrison
    December 28, 2020 at 13:31

    The US has gotten away with murder for decades, mostly under the rubric of anti-communism. Most Americans don’t realize the free ride that the US has gotten as we have murdered men, women, children, and villages all in the name of American hegemony (although that has been openly admitted only in recent years) because the world has been afraid of the boogie man of the godless communist hordes and/or the power of the United States. That facade is beginning to crack and fall away. Who, one wonders, will have the testosterone to stand up to the evil empire II now that the evil empire I has been defanged.

  6. John Drake
    December 28, 2020 at 12:20

    Welcome news, a blow against American “exceptionalism” and nationalism. An investigation of Republican voter suppression would also be in order and, considering the target populations of that are largely various shades of brown, fits right in.

  7. Edward
    December 28, 2020 at 12:10

    Maybe the commission can explain how in some cases– such as the Zimmerman case, it seems impossible to convict George Zimmerman of murder, while there are various death row cases that had very low bars for conviction.

  8. Patricia P Tursi, Ph.D.
    December 28, 2020 at 11:38

    There were over 400 Whites who died from interactions with police and over 200 Blacks (2018 or 2019). Yet was there coverage of ANY Whites who died? I believe this is a deliberate result of violence within our society by the military training and military equipment given to police. Israeli troops are used to train our police and research reveals an increase in deaths of civilians and civilians when military training is wrongly given. Citizens are NOT the enemy.

    As an elderly White female, I have, on different occasions been talked to insultingly and once even falsely arrested. When my statistics were on put on the record of a reported drug dealer who did not show up in court, I was arrested by a policeman who was angry with me. When I ran into a car in front of me and both of my Honda air bags exploded and I was in a daze (I later leanred I had heart failure and oxygen deprivation). When I asked when happened, an officer screamed at me that “It was your fault. That’s what happened” and he offered me no assistance.

    About 15 years ago, a group of us appeared to support the pro-tem Association President of a Springfield, Missouri neighborhood meeting where. The policeman who attended was officious and after we left the meeting, we were laughing outside. He rushed out and asked who was fighting. We laughed again. We were friends and ativists in the community. Two days later, a policeman showed up at my door on a Saturday morning with a warrant for my failing to appear in court, He deliberately handcuffed me so tightly that I screamed. I never knew that handcuffs could hurt. Even after loosening them, my wrists were beet red by the time we arrived at the station. In the receiving area, I was odered to take off my sweater. I had on a thin tshirt and protested that I didn’t want to take it off with males around. He insisted and I obeyed and then his eyes went immediately to my breasts. I was ordered to strip and bathe in a delousing soap. I was thrown in jail with a seven-time felon (according to her report.) I was in shock and couldn’t recall telephone numbers and prisoners did not have access to a telephone book. I received an verbal apology from the Municipal Court, but I was angry and attempted to hire an attorney. After many calls, finally a secretary or someone at an attorney’s office said, “you’re not going to find an attorney here that will help you. You’re dealing with the police.”

    I then was referred to an attorney in Buffalo, Missouri, an hour or so away, and after waiting to get the appointment and driving there and waiting to be seen, I was asked, by the attorney in an incredulous voice, who referred me. I said the DA’s office. The attorney laughed and said there was nothing that could be done and that a woman in Joplin, Missouri had spent 3 months in jail and couldn’t do anything. There have been other incidences of disrespect, etc. I was a victim of a class and age issue. I am now almost 85. Although I am a retired psychologist, I do not have money. I don’t hate police. I support them, but I believe that they need different training and not military training.

    I did some research into the abusive officer who arrested me The year before, he had shot and killed a 17 year old. It was reported in a newspaper outside of Missouri, that the 17 year-old was armed, but was sitting under a table with a gun pointed at himself. The two officers who were there had a police dog and when the dog was allowed to advance on the young man, he turned the gun toward the dog, and the officer who arrested me shot and killed the boy. A friend who knew the boy, said he was not the violent typet The newspaper reported that when asked how thepoliceman felt about taking a life, he cavalierly replied, “He had all day to make a different decision”. I believe he wanted to punish the young man by killing him. I’m all for supporting police who put their lives on the line, and many are very compassionate and helpful. I used to interview potential police hirees Most want to help, or say they do.

    As to the race issue, I have watched the deliberate encouragement of racial division. As a civil rights protester who marched part way in the Selma march and many other civil demonstrations and as a psychologist, I seee evidence of an encouragement of lawlessness and racial division and believe that we are in danger of losing our society. Indeed, proponents of Agenda 21 proposes there not be countries, but large areas called states. Now, there is a plan to eliminate a Human1 culture and develop a Human2 culture in the form of transhumanism. The constant focus on race is leading us from the real problems and toward a very real threat to humanity.

    • December 28, 2020 at 23:58

      Whites are not killed by police because of their race, while blacks are–that is the difference. As a result, blacks are killed at much higher rates by police than whites. Your minimizing of the racism evident in American policing smacks of a white supremacist attitude.

      • Vera Gottlieb
        December 29, 2020 at 09:51

        America has always been a WASP nation…

  9. Trevor
    December 28, 2020 at 10:01

    I think the use of the term public ‘lynching’ in the case of George Floyd is unfortunate and inflammatory.
    He was killed by a police officer – possibly murder or manslaughter but not a public lynching.

    • Piotr Berman
      December 28, 2020 at 13:56

      Perhaps. On the other hand, it was a group action that involved brutality — purposeful infliction of pain with no defensive aspects — and humiliation — dragging a handcuffed person out of the van and throwing face down, three important aspects of classic lynching.

    • George BaBa Eng
      December 28, 2020 at 15:12

      Trevor’s comment is an example of white denial that contributes to the continuation of the kinds of abuses that Black people have faced in America for over four hundred years. George Floyds murder was a public lynching by a white man who was employed by the state as a public servant and that white man used that employment to murder a Black Man in public view as a message to others that a white skin in uniform is a badge that allows for the practice of racism without immediate punishment or sanctions.

      • December 28, 2020 at 23:54

        Agree completely.

  10. dfnslblty
    December 28, 2020 at 09:49

    Maybe the usa can move from obstruction in the international realm, and from persecution of its Citizens!

Comments are closed.