The UN Cannot Live on Past Laurels: The Time for Courageous Leadership on Anti-Black Racism Is Now

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special Just Security “Racing National Security” symposium edited by editorial board member Matiangai Sirleaf. The goal of the symposium is to render race visible in national security to shift the dominant paradigm toward addressing issues of racial justice.)

Linking arms with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery was Nobel peace prize-winner Ralph Bunche. Bunche was a high-ranking African American United Nations official. He told the marchers that the U.N. was with them. Can the same assertion confidently be made today?

An Inequality Pandemic

In their quest for racial justice, African Americans and pan Africanist leaders have repeatedly turned to the U.N., its predecessor – the defunct League of Nations – and the century-old International Labour Organization (ILO) that became a U.N. specialized agency in 1948. There are defining past U.N. moments on anti-Black racism, notably at the ILO. But it has taken the unspeakable eight minute, 46 second video of the lynching of George Floyd, in the thick of the global COVID-19 pandemic, for the U.N. once again to foreground racial injustice, name the multifaceted “inequality pandemic” within and beyond global institutions, and commit in Secretary-General António Gutteres’ recent Nelson Mandela Lecture to a New Social Contract.

The Charter of the United Nations links international peace with security, while the ILO’s Constitution affirms that universal and lasting peace requires social justice. There is no justice, and no peace, without courageous U.N. leadership to redress the legacies of the four centuries-long global institution of the transatlantic enslavement of over 17 million Africans. In other words, any new social contract must challenge the racial contract, in philosopher Charles Mills’ terms. The U.N. must provide courageous leadership within the U.N. system, and beyond.

Invoking the UN’s Past

Recall that at the beginning of June, U.N. officials, anxious to show their solidarity in the massive, worldwide demonstrations seeking #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd and affirming the urgency of movements for Black lives, risked being told they were not “impartial” by a U.N. ethics board. U.N. special rapporteurs on freedom of assembly, past (Maina Kiai) and present (Clément Voule), sounded the alarm, the former tweeting that the conflation of the right to protest for racial justice with political partisanship was a “grotesque & dangerous distortion.”

Secretary-General Gutteres quickly recalibrated to allow “personal expressions of solidarity or acts of peaceful civic engagement” in the face of the “murderous act of police brutality.” He added that “[t]he position of the United Nations on racism is crystal clear: this scourge violates the United Nations Charter and debases our core values.” In doing so, Guterres invoked the U.N.’s proud history at the forefront of the anti-apartheid and civil rights movements.

Allusions to the U.N.’s past should also acknowledge the show of strength that newly decolonized states provided within the U.N. and the ILO. Newly independent members of the tripartite ILO (governments, employers and workers) led much of the international condemnation of apartheid resulting in South Africa’s withdrawal from the ILO in 1964 for 30 years (it had previously withdrawn from the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization in 1955). These nations were also influential in pushing for international sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. The ILO won the Nobel Peace Prize for its 50th birthday, in 1969, and soon-to-be South African president Nelson Mandela addressed the 77th session of the International Labour Conference in 1990 to “salute the ILO for its enormous contribution to our common struggle.”

There are not only high points in the U.N.’s past when it comes to racial justice. As my ongoing research chronicles, W.E.B. Du Bois and other leading pan-Africanists interacted with both the League of Nations and the ILO in the early 1920s. Du Bois encouraged the ILO’s first Director-General, Albert Thomas, to address the issue of “native” labor, and in particular Black labor. In internal memos, Thomas called for the unit to be staffed by a Black man, but Du Bois’ gently penned offer to the ILO to consider his candidacy to head that unit appears to have gone unnoticed by Thomas. The ILO instead embroiled itself in the process of building a “native labor code” that was shaped largely by colonial administrators whose focus was decidedly not transatlantic slavery’s legacy of racial injustice.

The Absent UN? Undue Recent Reliance on Special Procedures Mandate Holders

In the midst of the current International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), is the current U.N. able to provide the leadership on anti-Black racism the United States and the world urgently need now?

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michele Bachelet was swift to issue a strong statement situating George Floyd’s killing alongside “a long line of killings of unarmed African Americans by US police officers and members of the public.” Shortly after Bachelet’s statement, on June 17-18, the U.N. Human Rights Council held an “urgent debate” on “current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests.” The families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and Michael Brown, accompanied by the American Civil Liberties Union, sought more than a single debate, requesting a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council to address police use of excessive force, as a breach of the United States’ international obligations.

The response to the families’ request illustrates where so much of the U.N. leadership on anti-racism has come from recently: the U.N. special procedures mandate holders, including current U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, legal scholar Tendayi Achiume, and the Working Group of Experts on Peoples of African Descent. During the urgent debate, they issued an urgent call for commissions of inquiry into systemic racism in law enforcement both in the United States, and globally. The Human Rights Council decided to conduct a global commission on June 19.

But special rapporteurs are not U.N. officials. They are unpaid and act independently, sounding the alarm on critical thematic issues (alongside country mandates) that require individual or structural action, including action by the U.N. U.N. funding supports country visits, studies, and expert consultations, but that funding is severely limited. Relying on the pivotal independent initiative of special rapporteurs is not enough.

Addressing Anti-Black Racism Throughout the UN System

U.N. action to redress anti-Black racism should permeate the entire U.N. system, much as contemporary work on gender has done. Nationality is simply not a sufficient filter to ensure that historically marginalized descendants of transatlantic slavery are represented and heard. A range of representative structures and policies need to be rethought – from humanitarian action, to the work of the Economic and Social Council, and throughout specialized U.N. agencies. Consider the following three sites for action, among many others.

First, the legacy of slavery must be the root of U.N. action on anti-Black racism. On the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (March 25), Secretary-General Gutteres tweeted that “[t]he transatlantic slave trade is one of the biggest crimes in the history of humankind. And we continue to live in its shadow.” Yet the U.N.’s work on contemporary forms of slavery is largely divorced from what historian Saidiya Hartman refers to as the “afterlife of slavery,” leaving Black lives imperiled by “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration and impoverishment.”

It is telling that no descendant of transatlantic slavery has ever held the special rapporteurship on contemporary forms of slavery. U.N. acknowledgement that slavery was a centuries-long global institution in which a wide range of states – whether or not they had large slaveholding populations – participated and profited, should permeate the mandate. The mandate should foster long-overdue conversations that honor the experiences of the descendants of transatlantic slavery around the globe who live its brutal legacies. And of course, the U.N.’s work on the legacies of slavery should extend beyond the special rapporteurship and other U.N. special procedures mandate holders to reach the U.N.’s core operations. Representation of people of African descent within the U.N. should be counted and prioritized.

Second, U.N. treaty bodies have a distinct role to play. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) implements the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) that emerged at the height of the civil rights movement. CERD has responded rapidly to police brutality and other extra-judicial anti-Black violence in the United States, issuing a statement on the Prevention of Racial Discrimination that underscored the “systemic and structural discrimination” that “disproportionally promotes racial disparities against African Americans.” Other treaty bodies – from the Human Rights Committee, to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, to the Committee on Migrant Workers – should integrate an understanding of anti-Black racism, including intersectionality as theorized by legal scholar Kimberlè Crenshaw, into their human rights monitoring to build cohesive interpretations and recommendations.

Third, Secretary-General Guterres’ powerful acknowledgement that the COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on racial injustice should galvanize operational units and specialized agencies to act. Even accounting for the many factors that may predispose historically marginalized communities to adverse health consequences – such as housing conditions and inadequate, discriminatory access to health care – available data confirms that the disparities are linked to occupations, according to AFL-CIO economist William Spriggs, in a webinar organized by the Labor and Employment Relations Association, and chaired by the Office of the ILO for the United States. Spriggs underscored what COVID-19 has made acutely visible: African Americans are overrepresented among the “essential workers” who put their lives on the line to provide services and cannot shelter in place. They are consequently overexposed to the coronavirus and death.

Racialized COVID-19 disparities are a problem far beyond the United States. They affect most pluralist societies, which is to say, most societies. Legacies of slavery and servitude remain in the racialized bodies of those who do the work. Yet there is precious little comparative and international guidance on this topic. Consider Canada, which has yet to reckon fully with its own history of slavery and shared legacy of anti-Black racism in education, employment, and the criminal justice system. A historic June 25 statement by Canadian first ministers judiciously avoided referencing the systemic character of racism, although Canadian courts’ jurisprudence on the notion of systemic discrimination has been robust. Amid the pandemic, federal and provincial governments have, so far, mostly refused community requests to collect data on the racial distribution of COVID-19 in Canada.

U.N. technical cooperation with member States – on race-based data collection, appropriate human rights use of that data, and, in turn, data-driven, human rights inspired policies to address COVID-19 – is one example of the kind of urgently-needed international support the U.N. should provide.

A Distinct Role for the ILO

The ILO has a distinct role to play in addressing both the COVID-19 and the inequality pandemic. Work on social protection and labor market policies is crucial, but as Secretary-General Guterres has affirmed in his recent Mandela Lecture, it is insufficient to “tackle entrenched inequalities.” Targeted policies on race are needed. Key constituents in the ILO’s early July Global Summit acknowledged as much. Yet ILO advice on addressing COVID-19 in the workplace has been largely devoid of attention to racial disparities. And while the ILO’s 1944 constitutional annex – the Declaration of Philadelphia – links anti-racism to material well-being and “spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity,” the ILO’s 2019 Centenary Declaration does not even mention race or racism.

Last year, the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations issued an important, timely general observation on racial discrimination. It mentioned afro-descendants and the International Decade for People of African Descent in passing, but encouraged disaggregated data gathering respectful of confidentiality, proactive measures, and tripartite consultations with “interested groups.” The Committee of Experts has, for years, called on the United States to account for its mass incarceration of African Americans, under the U.S.-ratified Abolition of Forced Labour Convention of 1957 (No. 105). In the midst of a pandemic that puts all those whose households cannot shelter in place at risk, the words of Albert Thomas are as relevant now as they were in 1921 as he reflected on W.E.B. Du Bois’ work: “there will be no true protection of labour if we do not concern ourselves with the conditions of Black labour.”

A Call for Deeply Deliberate Action, Within and Beyond the UN

The weight of history adds to the urgency of this moment and requires the U.N. to “do more than condemn expressions and acts of racism,” as high-ranking U.N. officials of African and African descent have publicly urged. For we allow the past to be erased and its legacies to persist unless and until we redress the structural anti-Black violence that is exacted on people of African descent. In this fraught moment – with the deep discontent that surrounds it – there is an unmistakable opportunity to shift course, and be deeply deliberate about redressing anti-Black racism in any New Social Contract, or Global New Deal.

Secretary-General Gutteres has also invited the U.N. to turn inward, for a “deep and sincere discussion among colleagues about racism, including at the United Nations.” High ranking officials echo that call: “[t]o initiate and sustain real change, we also must have an honest assessment of how we uphold the UN Charter within our institution.” The assessment cannot simply be an internal affair – the stakes for people of African descent, the descendants of transatlantic slavery, are simply too high and representation within the U.N. too diffuse.

A fitting place to initiate necessary internal work would be to name a Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary-General on People of African Descent, with a mandate to look closely and carefully at the U.N.’s past, present, and future role in addressing anti-Black racism, while building proactive measures to ensure critical representation of people of African descent throughout the U.N. and its specialized agencies.

Madiba, the “global inspiration” for Secretary-General Gutteres’ “New Social Contract” lecture, cautioned us to “use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” The time for the U.N. to act to redress anti-Black racism within and beyond the U.N. is now.

Image: Yemdaogo Eric Tiare (on screens and left at dais), Vice-President of the seventy-third session of the General Assembly and Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso to the United Nations, chairs the continuation of the high-level plenary meeting to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the International Labour Organization (ILO). (Photo by UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

 

About the Author(s)

Adelle Blackett

Professor of Law and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law and Development, McGill University. Follow her on Twitter (@AdelleBlackett).