(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.)
UN Human Rights Council Holds Urgent Debate on US Systemic Racism
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) began a debate on “current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests” on June 17. The debate came after UNHRC President Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger received an urgent request from Burkina Faso on behalf of the African regional group to hold a debate on “the current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests.” In the debate (recorded video available here), experts and diplomats called for a commission of inquiry into racism in the United States; highlighted the fact that people of African descent continue to face structural racism globally, including suffering disproportionately high novel coronavirus infection and COVID-19 death rates; and listened to an impassioned plea in a prerecorded message from George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, who asked the U.N. to help Black Americans facing racism. Specifically, Floyd asked the Council to investigate killings of Black people in America and violence against demonstrators. Floyd said “I am my brother’s 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.”
(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the role of the U.N. in addressing systemic racism in the United States may want to read this recent Just Security article by U.N. Special Rapporteur E. Tendayi Achiume advocating for the creation of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racism and Law Enforcement in the United States.)
UN General Assembly Elects President and Non-Permanent Security Council Members
Ambassadors from 192 U.N. Member States elected Turkish diplomat and veteran Volkan Bozkir, who ran unopposed, to the position of General Assembly president on June 17. Bozkir will preside over the 75th U.N. General Assembly session in September. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ambassadors voted while wearing facemasks, practicing physical distancing, and only during pre-determined time slots.
Member States also elected Mexico, India, Ireland, Kenya, and Norway for two-year terms as non-permanent members of the Security Council, filling four of the five seats available this year. In the initial round of voting, neither Kenya nor Djibouti received the minimum number of votes to claim the seat allocated for the Africa region. In a second round of voting, Kenya was elected to the final non-permanent Security Council seat.
Rights Experts Condemn Israeli Plans for Additional Annexations
A group of 47 independent U.N. human rights experts warned that an Israeli plan to annex territory in the Palestinian West Bank would “violate a cornerstone principle of international law … that the acquisition of territory by war or force is inadmissible,” in a statement issued on June 16. The statement reads:
Israel’s stated plans for annexation would extend sovereignty over most of the Jordan Valley and all of the more than 235 illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This would amount to approximately 30 percent of the West Bank.
It further condemned the Israeli plan, saying that “the morning after annexation would be the crystallisation of an already unjust reality: two peoples living in the same space, ruled by the same state, but with profoundly unequal rights. This is a vision of a 21st century apartheid.”
ICC Assembly of State Parties President Rejects Trump’s Executive Order
Responding to the U.S. executive order allowing sanctions against ICC employees, the President of the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute O-Gon Kwon said the measures “undermine our common endeavor to fight impunity and to ensure accountability for mass atrocities. I deeply regret measures targeting Court officials, staff and their families.” The executive order is a response to the ICC investigation into the responsibility the United States, among others, has for alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan. Kwon said he would “convene an extraordinary meeting of the Bureau of the Assembly next week to consider how to renew our unwavering commitment to the Court.” In an opinion piece published June 18, ICC President Dr. Chile Eboe-Osuji described the executive order as a “bullying tactic,” and noted that the investigations are not an attempt to target Americans, rather, the ICC’s “concern is that there are allegations of gross human rights violations in Afghanistan that victims complain have waited far too long without investigation or prosecution.”
(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the recent executive order and the U.S. relationship with the ICC may want to read recent Just Security articles by Ambassador David Scheffer, Rob Berschinski, Ben Batros, and Adam M. Smith.)
UN Expert Welcomes US Supreme Court Ruling Preventing Firing on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 15 that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal under Title VII of the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964. U.N. Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity Victor Madrigal-Borloz praised the ruling as a “very significant step toward breaking the cycle of discrimination against LGBT & gender-diverse persons.” Madrigal-Borloz said that most U.N. Member States do not provide adequate protection on the national legal level from employment-related discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to UN News reporting.
WHO Welcomes Promising Initial Trial Results of Potential COVID-19 Treatment
A British laboratory has found that dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, may lower mortality rates in patients seriously ill with COVID-19, according to a June 16 news report. World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that this treatment is the first “to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support,” according to a June 16 press release. The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the WHO said it “will coordinate a meta-analysis to increase our overall understanding of this intervention.” Tedros said that “this is great news and I congratulate the Government of the UK, the University of Oxford, and the many hospitals and patients in the UK who have contributed to this lifesaving scientific breakthrough.”
Secretary-General Expresses Concern over Clash Between Indian and Chinese Forces
Earlier in the week, Chinese and Indian forces clashed along the two nations’ “line of actual control” in Ladakh, according to recent reporting. The clash was the first instance of a deadly military confrontation between the forces in the border region in 45 years. During a daily press briefing on June 16, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Syria Geir Pedersen expressed concern over the clash and “urge[d] both sides to exercise maximum restraint. We take positive note of reports that the two countries have engaged to de‑escalate the situation.” Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq echoed the same concern in a June 17 press briefing. The two nations, each of which is a nuclear power with a population topping one billion, agreed to de-escalate their border situation on June 17.
UN Expert Decries Philippine Court’s Conviction of Journalist
Maria Ressa, a journalist and founder of the news site Rappler, was arrested by Filipino authorities for alleged “internet libel,” though many see the arrest as an attempt to intimidate independent journalists. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye said “the conviction marks a new low in the Philippines’ protection of the freedom of expression and, in particular, the ability of an independent media to function in the country” in a statement released on June 16. Kaye said “any criminalisation of journalism, as took place here, serves only to defeat the ability of journalists to inform the public, to ensure open and rigorous public debate.”
A new spike of COVID-19 cases in Beijing has led the city to impose a “soft lockdown,” according to recent reporting. According to a June 13 news release, the WHO is following up on the cases, some of which were linked to the Xinfadi Market in Beijing.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet advocated for reparations for slavery and colonialism in a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on June 17. She said that we must “make amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms.”
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for a “new contract with nature” to combat deforestation and drought on June 17, saying, “today, our planet is ailing. Land degradation affects some 3.2 billion people … Through international action and solidarity, we can scale up land restoration and nature-based solutions for climate action and the benefit of future generations. By doing so, we can deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals and leave no one behind.”
A view of the elections in the UN Headquarters General Assembly Hall. 17 June 2020 United Nations, New York. Source: UN Photo # 843025