AU called to support findings on racial police brutality

20 May 2021 | Story Helen Swingler. Read time 9 min.
The backdrop to the commission of inquiry is the lengthy and horrific catalogue of police violence against Americans of African descent, highlighted by the murder of George Floyd in May last year. <strong>Photo </strong><a href="https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-woman-carrying-a-cardboard-4613880/" target="_blank">Life Matters / Pexels</a>.
The backdrop to the commission of inquiry is the lengthy and horrific catalogue of police violence against Americans of African descent, highlighted by the murder of George Floyd in May last year. Photo Life Matters / Pexels.

A press conference for Southern African media and stakeholders on 18 May has kickstarted the African lobby behind an independent report on racist police violence in the United States (US) by three major international legal bodies. The hard-hitting report was compiled by an international commission of 12 legal experts, among them University of Cape Town (UCT) human rights veteran Emeritus Professor Rashida Manjoo of the Department of Public Law.

The International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States was established by the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.

It was co-ordinated by Lennox Hinds, Professor Emeritus in the Program in Criminal Justice, Rutgers University. Hinds is a world-renowned criminal defence and international human rights lawyer.

The commission’s findings are reflected in a report that found the US guilty of crimes against humanity and other violations of international law. It was submitted to the Office of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on 30 March.

Culture of impunity

Manjoo stated, “This commission of inquiry brought together many factors, including systemic racist police violence against people of African descent; violation of numerous human rights, including the right to life; police action amounting prima facie to crimes against humanity; and the lack of accountability for such killings, which contributes to a culture of impunity in the United States.”

The backdrop to the commission of inquiry is the lengthy and horrific catalogue of police violence against Americans of African descent, highlighted by the murder of George Floyd in May last year. Floyd was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was later convicted on all charges. He has since appealed.

 

“Black people and their allies have struggled for a long time to eradicate that violence.”

The moderator of the press conference, international human rights lawyer Kerry McLean, said that racist police violence has been a “scourge in the US since the end of slavery”.

“And black people and their allies have struggled for a long time to eradicate that violence,” she added.

However, Floyd’s murder did mobilise an international coalition of hundreds of organisations and individuals who urged the UN to convene a commission of inquiry. They also asked the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to set up an urgent debate. But cowed by US pressure, the UNHRC failed to adopt the appropriate resolution, which would have mandated a commission of inquiry on systemic police violence in the US.

Though the UNHRC declined the request from civil society for a commission of inquiry, it did ask the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to prepare a report on racism. The independent civil society commission of inquiry’s report and recommendations now prepare the way for further advocacy and lobbying at the UN.

Tip of the iceberg

The independent commission of inquiry’s report took 11 months to compile, and details three weeks of live hearings across 33 cities in 22 US states. It includes documentary evidence and the testimony of several experts.

Because of time constraints, the commission was able to select only 44 of “the most egregious cases” for their hearings, Hinds said. In 43 of these cases, the victims died at the hands of police.

“The cases represent only the tip of the iceberg of the systemic nature of the pandemic of police violence in the US,” said Hinds.

Emer Prof Rashida Manjoo, one of 12 commissioners on the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States. Photo Michael Hammond.

The investigation was concluded in February this year, and the report has been shared with the UN High Commissioner and the US public.

Speaking at the 18 May press conference, Manjoo and her fellow South African commissioner, Max Boqwana, president of the Southern African Development Community Lawyers, presented the report’s main findings and recommendations respectively.

Adding his weight to proceedings, former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa Zak Yacoob said the report was fundamentally important to the world, the UN, non-racism, and peace.

“We must make sure that these recommendations are properly implemented.”

 

“There are two justice systems [in the US] – one for black Americans, and one for white Americans.”

Speaking from the US during the press conference, Floyd’s younger brother, Philonise Floyd, said that the nine minutes and 29 seconds it had taken for his brother to suffocate had been “a modern-day lynching”.

“There are two justice systems [in the US] – one for black Americans, and one for white Americans.”

With his brother’s murder, the family had been given a life sentence, he said.

Mobilising support

The Southern African media event was followed by others in East and West Africa, chaired by steering committee member and international human rights lawyer Kelly McLean. The aim is to mobilise the African Union’s (AU) support for the commission’s findings and recommendations.

The Southern Africa launch of the International Commission of Inquiry Report press conference. Video International Commission of Inquiry.

The commissioners have urged the AU and its member states to hold the US accountable for what Manjoo described as “a pattern of police killings of black people, in violation of international law and also the US constitutional Fourth Amendment rights”. She added that the clear prima facie case of crimes against humanity warrants investigation by the International Criminal Court.

 

“We must hold the US accountable before the UN.”

The roll-out in Africa is part of a global campaign to mobilise governments that are part of the Human Rights Council, said Hinds.

“We are hoping that the African Union [will] bring pressure on the US and United Nations to adopt our resolutions. We must hold the US accountable before the UN.”

To ensure accountability and justice are realised, the stakeholder countries and communities need to “give life to this report”, Manjoo said.

Boqwana urged the collective voice of the AU to support calls for accountability.

“As demanded by our report, we make these recommendations because the United States of America is a very serious global player on matters of international law and human rights, and portrays itself as a paragon of human rights and democracy.

“It must therefore act according to its outlook, failing which impunity becomes the order of the day the world over.”

Hinds added, “We urge you to continue to raise your voices, and if necessary, your votes in the Human Rights Council to defeat any attempt to sidetrack world attention or to minimise or excuse concern for the people of African descent in the United States.”

Demands for justice and accountability

Manjoo counts this work as an important contribution to her decades-long advocacy and scholarship in human rights broadly, including gender, social and racial justice.

 

“We’re broken; generations of us are emotionally tired.”

Speaking to UCT News after the press conference, Manjoo said, “Being part of this Commission of Inquiry was a privilege, but also a necessary part of my commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.

“The heartbreaking stories that were heard in the testimonies provided were all underpinned by demands for justice and accountability, but also highlighted the absence of the recognition and acknowledgement of the humanity and dignity of people of African descent.

“As articulated by one witness: ‘We’re broken; generations of us are emotionally tired. Our bodies are weathered, and it causes us physical illness. It causes lifelong ailments and diseases. It causes generational trauma that we are passing on… It tears holes in families and communities. And it’s not just one family, it’s what happens to one family in this community, it happens to all of us.’” (Testimony of Jamika Scott, presented on 3 February 2021)


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