After a three-month hiatus due to Covid-19, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) convened for an “urgent debate” on Wednesday about “systematic racism” and “police brutality.” The debate was proposed by Burkina Faso on behalf of the UN’s Africa group in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
The UNHRC never fails to deliver a rich performance of sanctimonious virtue signaling by states with atrocious human rights records and this occasion was no different.
Nigeria, for instance, where security operatives have reportedly killed at least 18 people while enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown, hypocritically presented itself as the champion of human rights. “This ugly incident should serve as a clarion call on the need for all states to take action in addressing systemic racism and racial discrimination which has been suffered by Africans and peoples of African descent for decades,” the Nigerian representative said. A 2018 study, Systematic Brutality, Torture and Abuse of Human Rights by the Nigerian Police: Accounts of Inmates of Ogun State Prisons, found that Nigerian police “rely heavily on the use of torture to elicit ‘confessions’ from arrestees. Former detainees reported experiences that included being bound and suspended mid-air in painful positions, kicked and beaten with machetes, gun butts, boots, fists, electrical wires, animal hides, and other instruments.”
Apparently, Nigeria has no problem with police brutality against black people, as long as its own police is doing the brutalizing.
In South Africa, at least 200 reports of police brutality have been recorded during the Covid-19 lockdown and eight people have been killed, according to Deutsche Welle, which reported that videos of the police brutality had gone viral: “Some of the videos show soldiers kicking people and forcing them to roll on the ground. Others were forced to frog-march until they reach their homes.”
At the UNHRC, however, South Africa invoked its experience of apartheid and played the role of human rights advocate. “The Human Rights Council must be the ultimate defender of the weak”, the South African representative told the UNHRC, eulogizing Floyd and quoting his last words, “I can’t breathe”. She had no eulogies for Collins Khosa, a black South African man who drew his last breath in April — just hours after South African security forces entered his home and beat him to a pulp for allegedly breaking the Covid-19 lockdown. The soldiers reportedly, “[P]oured beer on top of his head and on his body; … choked him; slammed him against the cement wall; hit him with the butt of the machine gun; kicked, slapped him, punched him…” Black lives, apparently, only matter in contexts that offer the possibility of bashing the U.S.
Egypt, which has an appalling police brutality record, told the UNHRC that their UN delegation was “extremely concerned over the violations victimizing people of African descent in the Western world” and urged “Western countries to… ensure that respect for human rights is given by law enforcement officers.”
Anti-black racism is common in Egypt: “While other large centres of African migration like Europe have been wrestling with racist violence, Egypt has only made small starts towards addressing the issue,” the Associated Press wrote in January. “In visits to several migrant communities throughout Cairo, at least two dozen sub-Saharan Africans, including four children, told The Associated Press… that they have endured racist insults, sexual harassment or other abuses.… The children said they have had rocks and rubbish thrown at them.… One woman from Ethiopia said neighbours pound on the windows of her family’s home, yelling ‘slaves’ before disappearing into the night.” In 2015, al-Araby reported that while the black community forms a substantial part of Egypt, there are no laws specifically against racial discrimination and there is “a staggering contempt of everything that is African.” Sudanese and Nubian people living in Egypt told al-Araby that they were called names in the street. “African victims of racial discrimination in Egypt do not report the violations against them because they know there is no one to protect them,” a blogger who writes about being black in Egypt told al-Araby.
The UNHCR debate was an opportunity for states to address police brutality and racism everywhere – not just in the United States or in the West. Instead, countries chose to follow the familiar, almost ritualized, pattern of singling the U.S. and the West out for condemnation. George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, in a video message, even asked the UNHRC to investigate U.S. policing. In short, it was the farce that we have grown accustomed to expecting from the UN and it amply illustrated, if any more proof were needed, that the U.S.’s decision to withdraw from the UNHRC in June 2018 was entirely justified.