Black Lives at the United Nations

By Meghan L. Morris*

 

On May 11, the United States received its latest peer review at the United Nations. Under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process provides an opportunity for member states to assess the human rights situation of each country individually, every five years. Having last been the subject of a UPR in 2010, the US was up for scrutiny.

The timing of this scrutiny, of course, matters. This UPR of the US took place in the midst of a domestic debate around police killings of black people, which has broadened into a series of debates around racial profiling, mass incarceration, and the use of force by police. The US had to submit its pre-UPR report to the UN at the beginning of February, in the wake of two grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The US then received its review just over a week after six Baltimore police officers were charged with the death of Freddie Gray, following weeks of protests in downtown Baltimore. These events made headlines not just in the US, but across the globe. It was to be anticipated that these debates would be raised in some way during the UPR.

What was less clear was how, exactly, they would make their way into the UPR review. The review itself is a discussion between the state under review and other UN member states, who pose questions and recommendations regarding the country’s human rights situation. Would member states make this a central issue, or would their recommendations largely focus on other big issues such as spying or the death penalty?  If the question of police violence against black people did emerge as a central issue, how would member states address it? Even amidst the major lingering debates around the War on Terror that were underway during the first UPR of the US in 2010, only sixteen member states directly mentioned the question of torture. In contrast, around fifty member states focused their 2010 recommendations on pushing the US to sign additional international treaties, putting issues related to the war on the back burner.

Protester in Memphis, TN responds to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Chris Wieland.

Protester in Memphis, TN responds to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Chris Wieland.

What happened in last week’s UPR was somewhat different. It was also – within the realm of the possible at the UN – rather dramatic. First, the US delegation anticipated the importance of policing and racial profiling, making them central to their report and opening statements. James Cadogan, the representative from the Department of Justice, dedicated his entire statement to the issue. His statement included the names of five of the black men killed by police in recent months, even while focusing on measures the US has taken to investigate and address policing issues. Representatives of state after state then spoke, critiquing the US for racial discrimination, racial profiling, and excessive use of force by police. From Kazakhstan to Mexico to Canada, country after country called the US to account. The tone of the recommendations ranged from the disappointed to the irate. Chad’s representative lamented that “Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image.”

New Years Eve #BlackLivesMatter protest in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via The All-Nite Images.

New Years Eve #BlackLivesMatter protest in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via The All-Nite Images.

What is notable about this is not only the shift in the content of recommendations, but also the shift in form. Insistence on international instruments in 2010 gave way to forthright accusations of racial discrimination and profiling in 2015, often without the customary legalese. There were few, if any, references to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CERD). What there were instead were plain, direct statements about police violence, and its disproportionate effects on the black community. Perhaps the most telling statement in this regard came from the representative for Pakistan. Pakistan’s first recommendation, unsurprisingly, involved drones. The request was to “use armed drones in line with existing international legal regimes” and pay fair compensation to drone victims. The second recommendation was to “end police brutality against African-Americans and rectify the judicial as well as social economic systems that systematically discriminate against them.” The first recommendation – which arguably directly affects more Pakistanis – calls for the US to comply with international law. The second recommendation calls the US to account for police killings of black people. While these two recommendations both call the US to account for killings by state forces, the form is distinctly different.

I would argue that not only the centrality of the issue at the UPR, but also the direct manner in which it was treated, is thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, from the beginning, has called a spade a spade. The issue for them has not been one of calling for compliance with international law, but of calling for an end to the killing of black people as if their lives weren’t important. Of an end to injustice and oppression of black communities.

The movement’s founders have explicitly called this injustice and oppression – as manifested in black poverty, mass incarceration, and unique burdens on black lives – state violence. Which is precisely what the representative of Pakistan, amongst scores of other state representatives, said last week. Not by reference to CERD or other international obligations, but by saying, simply and directly, that black lives matter.

 

Meghan L. Morris is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and an Affiliated Researcher at Dejusticia (the Center for Law, Justice and Society).