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African nations push UN to hold US accountable for racism, police brutality

A TV screen displays George Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd speaking via video message during an urgent debate on systemic racism in the US at the Human Rights Council on 17 June, 2020 in Geneva.
A TV screen displays George Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd speaking via video message during an urgent debate on systemic racism in the US at the Human Rights Council on 17 June, 2020 in Geneva. AFP - FABRICE COFFRINI

The United Nations Human Rights Council opened a special, unscheduled debate on Wednesday to discuss the issue of racism and police brutality in the United States in the wake of the murder of black American George Floyd.


The call by African countries for the debate comes as Americans continue to protest the latest killing of a black man by police.

Before the debate, the UN rights body heard a number of speakers, notably Philonise Floyd, George’s brother. In a passionate video statement to the council, he recounted the final minutes of his brother’s life on 25 May.

“My family had to watch the last moments of his life, when he was tortured, including the eight minutes and 46 seconds one officer kept his knee on my brother’s neck-- my brother begged the officer for his life, crying out for our mamma, who was already dead, and saying over and over again ‘I can’t breathe',” said Floyd, audibly sighing as he spoke of his late brother.

Floyd spoke of those who came out on the streets of Minneapolis, where his brother was killed, and other parts of the US, who were teargassed, run over, beaten, and blinded by police cracking down on demonstrations.

In their comments before the debate, both African Union vice chairman Thomas Kwesi Quartey, a Ghanaian, and UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed spoke of the direct connection of racism to the transatlantic slave trade.

Mohammed, originally from Nigeria, said she has grown “thick skinned… even numb”, speaking on a personal capacity of the racism she has experienced.

“How can we possibly continue to turn the other way? Enough is enough,” said Mohammed.

UN fails to fight racism

Her words were echoed in the video statement presented by E. Tendayi Achiume, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, who called out the whole UN system on its lack of changes regarding racism.

“The truth is, there’s been a steady erosion within the UN of commitment to the anti-racism human rights framework, including the historic commitments to combatting structural forms of racial discrimination and intolerance that were made at the world conference against racism in Durban in 2001,” said the Zambian.

African nations in the council have called for a international commission of inquiry that would report back in a year about US police brutality and systematic racism in the US and elsewhere, a call that those against the plan have cited as only to be used for more serious human rights violations.

“If the national and global uprisings we are now witnessing are not sufficient evidence of the gravity of the issues before you, it’s difficult to imagine what it would take to convince you that the situation we are facing is very serious,” said Achiume.

“It’s difficult to imagine what might convince you to demonstrate the equal worth of people of African descent,” she added.

Hours before the debate was about to start, Andrew Bremberg, US ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said that the US is not above scrutiny, but all the other countries where racism is a problem need to be noted as well.

“As the world’s leading advocate for human rights we call upon all governments to demonstrate the same level of transparency and accountability that the U.S. and our democratic partners practice,” Bremberg said.

The US quit the council two years ago, saying that members were picking on its ally, Israel.

Botswana submitted the draft resolution, and its ambassador to Switzerland, Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme, spoke during the debate, focusing on the uprising of people on the streets of the US and elsewhere, protesting against racism and brutality.

“The protests forced all of us to look in the mirror and introspect on the state of the world also on the horrors of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, among others,” she said.

“What remains unique at this time is the solidarity portrayed by people of all races, different backgrounds, people from every corner of the world,” she added.

International commission of inquiry?

Council members are currently debating the possibility of the international commission of inquiry.

Philonise Floyd ended his comments on the state of racism in the US, saying that the slaying of his brother, George, was not unique.

“You watched my brother die—that could have been me. I am my brother’s keeper. You are the UN, and you are your brother’s and sister’s keepers in America,” he said.

“I am asking you to help him. I am asking you to help me. I am asking you to help us, black people in America,” he added.

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