The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.N. Human Rights Council to turn attention on ‘systemic’ racism in United States

A rally against racism and police brutality, in solidarity with protests in the United States, is held in Geneva on June 9. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

When President Trump announced two years ago that the United States would withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the White House said that the decision did not mean that the country would retreat from its stance on human rights — a cause the administration accused the council of betraying.

“Our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said of the top U.N. human rights body.

Now, amid mass police accountability protests across the United States, UNHRC is set to turn its attention to America. The body will hold a rare “urgent debate” Wednesday on human rights in the United States, and African countries are circulating a draft resolution calling for a high-level investigation into U.S. racism and police violence.

The United States, no longer a council member, will not get a vote on the matter. The State Department and White House would not immediately comment on the record.

As the subject of the debate, the United States is permitted to participate in it, despite its nonmembership, but has not indicated if it would be willing to do so. “The doors remain open to them,” said Rolando Gomez, a media officer for the council.

UNHRC’s Wednesday event will focus on “systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests” in the United States, after a request by all 54 African countries, who highlighted the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody last month, sparking a protest movement.

The draft resolution, among other proposals, calls for an independent international commission of inquiry, one of the highest-level probes the United Nations can launch, to look into “deaths of Africans and people of African descent” in the United States with the aim of “bringing perpetrators to justice.”

For the council’s critics, especially U.S. conservatives, this week’s debate might serve to highlight the reasons Washington left the UNHRC in the first place. Many of the countries that will debate police violence in the United States have their own issues with policing. Some are repressive, authoritarian regimes.

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But to many human rights advocates, the events tell another story, about U.S. retrenchment from the international human rights arena — ceding some of the space to smaller nations, some with shaky human rights records, such as Burkina Faso, which led the nations calling for the debate.

In the past there have been only four “urgent debates,” which are designed to bring attention to an especially pressing matter. One was about the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010, in which Israeli troops killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, and three more focused on aspects of the Syrian civil war.

Commissions of inquiry are high-profile investigations that demand considerable resources. In the past, they have been used in relation to conflicts such as the war in Syria.

UNHRC, founded in 2006, is designed to review and investigate human rights concerns in U.N. countries, whether they are members of the council or not. It has 47 member nations who are elected for three-year terms.

Complaints about bias and hypocrisy have followed it from the start: The council replaced the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which had existed since 1946 but faced repeated criticism for allowing human rights abusers to be members.

While the new body’s membership structure was reformed, authoritarian countries such as Venezuela have still been able to join, in part due to regional voting. Critics also say that the council focuses unfairly on Israel.

The lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee noted in 2018 that the council had issued 80 resolutions against Israel, “virtually the same number as it has levied against all other countries combined.”

Under President George W. Bush, the United States did not participate in the council — in part because of concerns that it would not win a seat if it tried, along with concerns over its membership and intentions. In his first year in office, President Barack Obama sought and won a U.S. seat on the council.

Less than a decade later, the Trump administration pulled out in the middle of the president’s first term, becoming the first country to back out of membership and joining isolated nations such as Eritrea and North Korea that refuse to work with the body.

Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited bias against Israel among their justifications, as well as the alleged hypocrisy of members, long-standing issues that many human rights groups admit are founded. Some academics who study the council said that U.S. membership had served as a limiting factor in criticism of Israel by the body and that by leaving, the United States had given up leverage.

The 2018 decision coincided with criticism of the United States from U.N. officials: Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. commissioner for human rights, the very same week called the treatment of migrant children at U.S. borders “unconscionable.”

Criticism of the United States at the United Nations goes far back, as does Washington’s frosty reaction to it. In 1947, when W.E.B. Du Bois appealed to the United Nations to consider the plight of African Americans, U.S. Ambassador Eleanor Roosevelt refused to participate in the meeting, suggesting that the Soviet Union would use the event to undermine the United States.

While Obama said he welcomed the scrutiny of events such as the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the Trump administration has taken a different approach, pushing back against international criticism, even moving to sanction prosecutors and officials from the International Criminal Court.

E. Tendayi Achiume, a Zambian-born law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that the council needs to act, as racism in the United States is “a human rights crisis of existential proportions.”

“The domestic legal and policy regimes that ought to be relied upon to put an end to this crisis have never been able to do so,” Achiume, who serves as U.N. special rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, wrote for the news site Just Security.

Floyd’s family have supported U.N. involvement. “I want people across the world and the leaders in the United Nations to see the video of my brother George Floyd, to listen to his cry for help, and I want them to answer his cry,” his brother Philonise Floyd said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union.