(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.)
In Unprecedented Action, UN Rights Experts Condemn Systemic Racism in US
A group of 46 independent United Nations human rights experts issued a statement on June 5 expressing sympathy for protests against systemic racism (the “uprising”) and specifically criticizing President Donald Trump’s response. The rights experts called on public authorities and private citizens to take action in response to the protestors’ demands, including reducing “police and military budgets, and … reinvest[ing] those funds in healthcare, education, housing, pollution prevention and other social structures, especially in communities of color that have been impoverished and terrorized by discriminatory state intervention.” They also indicated that “reparative intervention for historical and contemporary racial injustice is urgent, and required by international human rights law.”
In a related statement issued on the same day, a group of 28 U.N. Human Rights Council special rapporteurs and working group members described the recent killings of African-Americans as “modern-day racial terror lynchings.” The group “condemn[ed] the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Beronna Taylor and George Floyd, and call[ed] for systemic reform and justice” in the United States.
UN Special Rapporteur Warns US Police May Be Violating International Law, Secretary-General “Heartbroken” at Violence
In an opinion piece published June 1 in the Washington Post, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard warned that U.S. police responses to ongoing protests triggered by a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, including the targeting of media members, may be violations of international law. Callamard noted that international norms require the use of force by law enforcement officials, even when using “less-lethal” weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets, “must be restricted to situations of necessity and in proportion to the associated risks.” Under international law, “any use of force by state agents that exceeds what is necessary and proportionate is deemed an attack on human dignity.” Callamard explains that, in the United States, police use of force is instead governed by the looser criteria of “reasonableness and the doctrine of qualified immunity.” Callamard calls on the United States to align its use of force policies with international law, regulate the use of “less-lethal” weapons, and promote police accountability.
On June 2 U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted “I am heartbroken to see violence on the streets in our host country and our host city of New York. Grievances must be heard, but should be expressed peacefully – and authorities must show restraint in responding to demonstrations.”
Editor’s Note: Readers interested in Just Security’s coverage of the George Floyd killing and associated protests can find articles related to these topics here).
NAACP calls for Mistreatment of Black People in US to be Classified as Human Rights Violation
On May 31, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a list of demands in response to the most recent instances of violence against African Americans, including the killing of George Floyd. As one of its demands the NAACP called on the U.N. “to step up and classify the mistreatment of Black people in the U.S. by the police as a human rights violation, aggressively call out the U.S. government in the process, and impose sanctions if necessary.”
UN Rights Commissioner Calls for Reform of “Endemic and Structural Racism” in US
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a statement June 3 calling for “deep-seated [racial] grievances [to] be addressed” in the United States. Criticizing acts of force reportedly used by authorities against both protestors and journalists, Bachelet said that “the voices calling for an end to the killings of unarmed African Americans need to be heard. The voices calling for an end to police violence need to be heard. And the voices calling for an end to the endemic and structural racism that blights US society need to be heard.” Bachelet previously issued a June 1 statement calling for “serious action” to halt the killing of African Americans by police and armed members of the public in the United States. More reporting on Bachelet’s statements is available on UN News.
WHO Warns Central and South America “Intense Zones” of Coronavirus Transmission
Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme Dr. Michael Ryan called for international support for Central and South American nations struggling to combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to UN News reporting. Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Haiti, Argentina, and Bolivia are experiencing the largest increase in caseloads in the region. Ryan said that “we are seeing a progressive increase in cases on a daily basis.” Although Latin America already contains numerous “intense zones of transmission … I don’t believe that we have reached the peak in that transmission,” said Ryan.
OHCHR Releases Report Detailing Human Rights Violations and Impunity in Philippines
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) submitted an advanced version of a report on the human rights situation in the Philippines to the U.N. Human Rights Council on June 4. The report documents that a “heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs” in the Philippines in recent years has resulted in the “widespread and systematic killing of thousands of alleged drug suspects,” the killing of “numerous human rights defenders” and the “vilification of dissent.” These problems have been exacerbated by pervasive impunity for government actors involved in violence and rights violations.
UN Secretary-General Warns that Yemeni Institutions “Facing Near-Collapse”
Secretary-General Guterres called for “solidarity” with vulnerable populations in Yemen in his remarks during a virtual pledging conference on June 2. Amidst the continuing conflict, nearly 4 million Yemeni people have been displaced. In addition to ongoing fighting, Yemenis currently face threats from cholera outbreaks, floods, malaria, and dengue fever. Furthermore, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Yemen was reported on April 10; Guterres said “tackling COVID-19 on top of the existing humanitarian emergency requires urgent action.” Guterres warned that “the situation in Yemen is catastrophic.” Although the U.N. requested $2.4 billion in aid, the session only yielded $1.35 billion dollars in pledges, according to recent reporting.
(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the interplay between the conflict in Yemen, COVID-19, and humanitarian concerns may also be interested in recent Just Security articles by Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih and Kristine Beckerle, Charlotte Kamin, Asli Ozcelik Olcay, and Catriona Murdoch and Niriksha Sanghvi.)
UN Rights Commissioner Urges Action to Address “Appalling Impact” of Pandemic on Racial Minority Groups
Commissioner Bachelet said that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is “exposing alarming inequalities in some countries” during a meeting on June 2. She noted that, in the United States, African Americans face a death rate twice as high as other groups. Data shows this pattern is also present in Brazil, France, and the United Kingdom. Bachelet remarked:
These problems are mirrored to a greater or lesser degree in many other countries, where people of African descent and other racial minorities are subjected to entrenched forms of discrimination. It is a tragedy that it took COVID-19 to expose what should have been obvious – that unequal access to healthcare, overcrowded housing and pervasive discrimination make our societies less stable, secure and prosperous.
(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the interplay between inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic may be interested in this conversation between Just Security co-editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman and E. Tendayi Achiume, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, and this article by Amos Toh and Deborah Brown).
WHO Compiled Data Warns of Widespread Antimicrobial Resistance
Data compiled from a record number of countries shows that concerning numbers of bacterial infections are increasingly resistant to antibiotic medicines, according to a June 1 WHO news release. The increased rate of resistance to antimicrobials among common infections is limiting effective methods of treating these diseases. WHO expressed concern that the inappropriate use of antibiotics during the coronavirus pandemic will further exacerbate this growing issue. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned, “as we gather more evidence, we see more clearly and more worryingly how fast we are losing critically important antimicrobial medicines all over the world.” WHO Assistant Director-General for antimicrobial resistance Dr. Hanan Balkhy urged increased investment in the development of new antimicrobials. To support the development of new antibacterial treatments, WHO released target product profiles.
UN Warns “Unprecedented” Financing Needed to Address Pandemic’s Economic Ramifications
Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said that many developing countries are struggling to manage the needs of their populations in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, in a virtual meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) “Financing for Development Forum.” She said, “financing on an unprecedented scale is essential to an effective response,” according to UN News reporting. At the same meeting, ECOSOC President Mona Juul said that “we cannot let those that are less able to deal with this crisis fall further behind” on progress towards the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
An Israeli tank and patrol unit crossed the “blue line” border with Lebanon on June 2, leading to a standoff with Lebanese and U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldiers, according to reporting by the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, and Lebanon’s Daily Star. While the standoff ended without any violence, it marked the first time an Israeli tank had crossed the U.N.-designated border since 2006.
The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson warned that “the Ocean is in trouble,” according to UN News reporting released on June 1. He said that “some 60 per cent of the world’s major marine ecosystems have been degraded or are being used unsustainably.” Thomson recognized the ongoing devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic but warned that “perhaps the greatest risk of the pandemic would be that we lose sight of the most fundamental challenge facing humanity, which is the effect that climate change is having on our planet, now and in the future.”
A French court ruled on June 3 that Félicien Kabuga, a suspect in the Rwandan genocide, be handed over to the U.N. International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals — the successor of the International Criminal Tribunals for both Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) — for trial, according to recent reporting. Kabuga has been indicted on genocide and crimes against humanity charges by the ICTR since 1998 (most recent amended indictment here) for allegedly funding and arming militias that killed over 800,000 Rwandans during the 1994 genocide.
(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the Kabuga arrest may be interested in this article by Executive Editor Beth Van Schaack).
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) announced a new Ebola outbreak in the Wangata health zone of Équateur province, according to a UN News release published on June 1. This is the DRC’s eleventh Ebola outbreak since the virus was discovered in 1976. WHO Director-General Tedros said “this is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face.”
The U.N. Security Council “extended the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) and set out the parameters for a follow-on mission that will start its work on 1 January next year” according to UN News reporting. The announcement comes as civil society activists have expressed concerns about planned changes to peacekeeping operations in South Sudan and the Darfur region recently. For more analysis see here.
WHO launched a kit on May 29 to alert students about tobacco industry efforts to attract young people to their addictive products. Ruediger Krech, director for health promotion at WHO, said, “educating youth is vital because nearly 9 out of 10 smokers start before age 18. We want to provide young people with the knowledge to speak out against tobacco industry manipulation.”
The World Tourism Organization released the fourth version of its COVID-19 travel restrictions review, according to UN News reporting. U.N. World Tourism Organization Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said “the timely and responsible easing of travel restrictions will help ensure the many social and economic benefits that tourism guarantees will return in a sustainable way.”
Special Rapporteurs Balakrishnan Rajagopal (adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living) and Olivier De Schutter (extreme poverty and human rights), released a statement on June 4 calling on the Indian government to abide by a slew of recent orders by the Indian Supreme Court instructing the government to provide free food, shelter and transit home to migrant workers stranded throughout the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.