On June 15, 2020 the United Nations Human Rights Council convened for the first time after a three-month long hiatus necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council focused on a major threat to public health often given too little focus: racism and police violence.
Human rights law and policy calls for governments to acknowledge and terminate any toleration or practice of racial discrimination or other human rights violations. The United Nations Human Rights Watch aims to protect and preserve human rights globally, and sounds the global alarm when such abuses occur. For example in 2018, the United Nations called on China to cease ethnically-motivated discriminatory practices targeting the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, including arbitrary and mass detention of almost 1 million Uighurs. The following year, over 20 nations called on China to implement U.N. recommendations and end the abuses.
Despite widespread agreement and copious data indicating that racially-driven police violence is a major threat to many Americans, the June 2020 U.N. convening was the first to address the issue. The convening was called for following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chilling video footage of Floyd’s violent death over a counterfeit $20 bill caused sadness and frustration across the country, culminating in historic protests and marches nationwide.
The death of George Floyd is not an isolated occurrence. Racially-driven police violence has long been a controversial public health issue in the United States. In 2019, over one thousand people were shot and killed by police–on average almost 3 people per day. There is a clear racial discrepancy in these numbers. Black Americans’ mortality risk is between 1.9 and 2.4 deaths per 100,000 per year, whereas whites Americans’ risk is only between 0.6 and 0.7. Black women and Black transgender people are also disproportionately victimized by police violence. Following 21 deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in the first half of 2020 alone, the Human Rights Council recognized the most violent deaths in a vulnerable community since the advocacy group began tracking them in 2013.
The Human Rights Council agreed that it would be “inconceivable” to not address racially-driven police violence, citing that many other persons of African descent had “faced the same fate because of their origin and police violence.” The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on the United States to make immediate structural reforms to end racial discrimination and urged the U.S. to ensure a wide understanding of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination among law enforcement officials through enhanced training and education.
These calls to action represent a consensus among the human rights community that police violence disproportionately affecting people of color will no longer be tolerated. But, this is only the first step toward ending the recurrence of Black people killed at the hands of the police. Education and re-training, as recommended by the Committee, are important in reshaping police actions and attitudes, but this will not suffice to end systemic racism and structural discrimination that has plagued the United States since its founding. The United States remains behind much of the world in racial justice. Recognizing that racism and police violence against Black individuals are a severe threat to public health and a violation of human rights, the fight against racism and racial discrimination must be made a priority.