UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (right) looks on next to a TV screen showing George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd speaking via video message during an urgent debate on “systemic racism” in the United States and beyond at the Human Rights Council on Wednesday.—AFP
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (right) looks on next to a TV screen showing George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd speaking via video message during an urgent debate on “systemic racism” in the United States and beyond at the Human Rights Council on Wednesday.—AFP

GENEVA: The UN’s human rights chief urged countries on Wednesday to confront the legacy of slavery and colonialism and to make amends for “centuries of violence and discrimination” through reparations.

Addressing an urgent debate on racism and police brutality at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Michelle Bachelet called on countries to examine their pasts and to strive to better understand the scope of continuing “systemic discrimination”.

She pointed to the “gratuitous brutality” on display in the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis in the US on May 25 after a white police officer — since charged with murder — kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

This symbol of “systemic racism... has become emblematic of the excessive use of disproportionate force by law enforcement, against people of African descent, against people of colour, and against indigenous peoples and racial and ethnic minorities in many countries across the globe,” she said.

“Behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing lies the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism,” she said.

She stressed the need to “make amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms.” Wednesday’s urgent council debate was called in response to Floyd’s killing, which was caught on amateur video, sparking worldwide demands to address systemic racism in the United States and around the world.

African countries are calling for the council to ask Bachelet and other UN rights experts to investigate racism and policy brutality in the US, but potential support for their draft resolution is unclear. The US itself withdrew from the council two years ago, but a number of its allies are uncomfortable with the country being singled out in the text, according to observers of the process.

Bachelet herself did not speak out specifically in favour of the draft resolution, but she did stress the need for “decisive reforms”.

She insisted on the importance of making clear that “black lives matter.

Indigenous lives matter. The lives of people of colour matter.” “All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights: that is what this Council, like my office, stands for”.

George Floyd’s brother on Wednesday begged the United Nations to help African Americans because “black lives do not matter in the United States”, as the UN’s rights chief urged reparations for centuries of discrimination.

Philonise Floyd made an impassioned speech via video-link to an urgent United Nations Human Rights Council debate on “systemic racism” in the US and beyond.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the “gratuitous brutality” of Floyd’s death in police custody encapsulated racism that harmed millions of people of African descent. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the council two years ago.Philonise Floyd said his brother had been “tortured to death” as witnesses begged the officer to stop, “showing us black people the same lesson, yet again: black lives do not matter in the United States of America”.

“You in the United Nations are your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in America, and you have the power to help us get justice for my brother George Floyd.” “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 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 text presented on Tuesday on behalf of 54 African countries had proposed such an inquiry.

But the proposal was dropped, the resolution heavily watered down following stark opposition from Washington and some of its allies.

But the proposal was dropped, the resolution heavily watered down following stark opposition from Washington and some of its allies.

It now calls on Bachelet and UN rights experts 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 those incidents that resulted in deaths.

The aim, it said, was “to ensure the accountability of perpetrators and redress for victims”.

In her statement to the council, Bachelet said Floyd’s death had brought to head the sense of outrage felt by overlooked people and the protests were “the culmination of many generations of pain”.On Tuesday, Trump issued an order to improve policing, calling for a ban on dangerous choke holds — except if an officer’s life is at risk.

The executive order encourages de-escalation training, better recruitment, sharing of data on police who have bad records, and money to support police in complicated duties related to people with mental or drug issues. However, it stopped well short of demands made at nationwide protests.

Andrew Bremberg, the US ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said his country was open in its commitment to addressing racial discrimination and injustice, citing Trump’s executive order.

“We call upon all governments to demonstrate the same level of transparency and accountability,” he said.

“Sadly, there are too many places in the world where governments commit grave violations of human rights and practice systematic racial discrimination while many of those assembled in Geneva are silent.” It remains to be seen whether the current draft resolution will pass.

Australia, South Korea and the Nether­lands all issued statements in the chamber that were broadly supportive of Washing­­ton’s outlook.

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2020