Reflections on the 19 June 2020 UN Human Rights Council resolution on systemic racism, police brutality, and unlawful suppression of peaceful protest.
“Black Lives Matter. Indigenous Lives Matter. The lives of people of colour matter.” – Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 17 June 2020
The brutal torture and murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in the United States (US) on 25 May 2020 has sparked global outrage about systemic racism and impunity for police violence against Black people, Indigenous Peoples and people of colour. Protestors have taken to the streets in thousands of places around the world, including Canada.
On 17-18 June, the 47 member States of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council held a rare urgent debate, and on 19th June passed a unanimous resolution that condemns police violence against Black people and peaceful protestors and mandates a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The final draft of the resolution acknowledges that many countries share the problem, but some have criticized the removal of language that singles out the US.
Police crackdowns against peaceful protestors in the US have resulted in many injuries. Some people have been shot dead. Police have reportedly arrested more than 400 journalists who were reporting on protests. One journalist was arrested in the middle of an on-air broadcast. One photojournalist lost her eye to a foam bullet aimed at her by police. Lawyers’ organizations have reported that clearly-marked legal observers in dozens of cities have been targeted by police for violence or arrest. In mass arrests of protestors, hundreds have been detained in reportedly filthy and overcrowded conditions without COVID-19 protection.
On 8 June, after two weeks of continuous protests, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called on the UN Human Rights Council to hold a special session on the situation of escalating police violence and repression of protests in the US. The ACLU letter was joined by more than 600 civil society organizations around the world, including Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC).
On 12 June, all 54 African countries made an urgent request that the matter be taken up by the Human Rights Council. The African countries defined the issue as “systemic racism that produces state-sponsored racial violence, and licenses impunity for this violence.”
The Council responded by holding an urgent debate on 17th and 18th June. Numerous States, UN officials, and NGOs made oral statements, including the ACLU, whose oral statement was joined by LRWC. The brother of George Floyd, Philonise Floyd, made an impassioned plea saying:
“I am my brothers’ keeper. 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.”
During the urgent debate, the High Commissioner identified the source of the problem as the failure to confront the historical legacy of slavery and colonialism in many countries. She called for recognition that “Black Lives Matter. Indigenous Lives Matter. The lives of people of colour matter.” She added the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.”
The African States drafted a resolution calling for an independent, international Commission of Inquiry (COI). On 19 June 2020, “Juneteenth,” the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a revised resolution condemning the “continuing racially discriminatory and violent practices perpetrated by law enforcement agencies against Africans and people of African descent, in particular which led to the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minnesota.”
The resolution also deplored “recent incidents of excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers against peaceful demonstrators defending the rights of Africans and of people of African descent.” During negotiations, the draft resolution was stripped of references singling out the US and the process was downgraded from a Commission of Inquiry. The final resolution mandates a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with oral updates on progress in the September 2020 and March 2021 Council sessions.
While the ACLU has criticized the resolution for failing to emphasise the US, the broadening of the scope of the resolution allows the High Commissioner to address the reality that systemic racism, including excessive use of force by police, is not confined to the US. However, the scope of this resolution is restricted to racism against people of African ancestry and does not address the systemic racism suffered by Indigenous Peoples and people of colour around the world, including Canada.
In Canada, a 2017 CBC investigation found that Black and Indigenous persons were “severely overrepresented” in police-involved deaths and that “more than one-third of people shot to death by the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] were Indigenous. Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the population.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission found that between 2013 and 2017 “a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a White person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service…” A recent CTV report shows that police shooting deaths in Canada have dramatically escalated during 2020, and that Black and Indigenous persons are significantly overrepresented in the last 100 police shooting deaths.
In March 2020, police video shows the beating of Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta after he allegedly resisted arrest after police pulled his car over because of expired licence plates. Recent police shooting deaths in Canada include the 27 May 2020 killing of Toronto resident Regis Korchinski-Paquetegis, a Black woman; the 4 June 2020 killing of Chantel Moore from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia shot by police in New Brunswick; the 12 June killing of Rodney Levi of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation in New Brunswick, and the 21 June killing of Ejaz Ahmed Choudry in Mississauga, Ontario. International standards require prompt, independent, impartial investigations in each of these killings, which are effective for purposes of prosecution of perpetrators of any killings found to be unlawful.
Canada has continually come to the attention of UN and regional human rights bodies concerned with racial discrimination. In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, then Prof. James Anaya, warned Canada that the human rights problems faced by Indigenous Peoples had “reached crisis proportions.”
The UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which monitors countries’ compliance with their obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), has made repeated recommendations to Canada. The CERD’s latest report on Canada in 2017 expressed “regret” – strong words in the parlance of treaty bodies – that the Committee’s previous recommendations had not been implemented. In even stronger language, the CERD said it was “alarmed” that Canada has resisted multiple decisions by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) and Courts requiring that child and family services for Indigenous children be funded on an equal footing as services for children in other communities. Canada continues its court battles against implementing the CHRT decisions. The CERD has noted that in Canada, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples lack equal access to education, health care, social services, water, and access to justice.
In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, then Victoria Tauli Corpuz, expressed concern about “particularly pronounced” discrimination faced by Indigenous women who are victims of crimes. The Special Rapporteur cited the example of Indigenous women and girls in Canada who are missing or murdered at a rate of six times more than women and girls from other communities. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) observed in 2019 that “the disappearances and murders of Indigenous women in Canada are part of a broader pattern of violence against them… Indigenous women and girls have faced numerous forms of discrimination and violence, resulting from historical marginalization, racism, sexism and poverty, together with structural inequalities and violations related to their territories and natural resources…”
Canada’s violations of Indigenous Peoples’ land rights have long been a concern to the UN. For example, in 2017, the CERD stated it was “deeply concerned” that “[v]iolations of the land rights of indigenous peoples continue” and that “[c]ostly, time-consuming and ineffective litigation is often the only remedy, in place of seeking free, prior and informed consent — resulting in the State party continuing to issue permits which allow for damage to lands.”
The CERD’s latest recommendations came in December 2019, when the Committee took urgent action to request that Canada halt pipeline construction through traditional territories of First Nations in British Columbia (BC) without their free, prior, and informed consent. The CERD also said it was “disturbed by forced removal, disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials against indigenous peoples who peacefully oppose large-scale development projects on their traditional territories.” Canada and BC have failed to implement the CERD’s recommendations. LRWC has set out Canada’s international law obligations to do so.
In February 2020, national protests erupted in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, resulting in an escalation of overt racism against Indigenous peoples after a BC court authorized police to enforce injunctions obtained by the Coastal Gaslink corporation against peaceful protestors from traditional First Nation territories. Both criminal and civil contempt proceedings were brought against those arrested for violating the injunction. The criminal contempt charges against peaceful First Nations protestors were dropped in June 2020, but there can be no applause, because criminal charges against peaceful protestors should never have been laid in the first place.
Canada-wide protests since 25 May 2020 indicate that it is just as urgent to address systemic racism in Canada as it is in the US. The words of 20 UN officials of African descent on 14 June sum up the urgency of immediate action around the world, including Canada: “Now is the time to move from words to deeds” and to “commit to harnessing our expertise, leadership and mandates to address the root causes and structural changes that must be implemented if we are to bring an end to racism.” In the words of Michelle Bachelet: “Time is of the essence,” “Patience has run out.”
– Catherine Morris, Executive Director,
Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada