The Role of the UN in Combatting Racism in the United States Throughout History & Today

The Civil Rights Movement ushered in an era of monumental activism in the fight against centuries of grotesque injustice and violence against the Black community in the United States. In 1951, a group of Black activists from the Civil Rights Congress wrote a petition to the United Nations titled “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.” This document demonstrated the U.S. government’s responsibility in the abuse, mass murders and disenfranchisement of Black Americans throughout history and in the 1950s to the present day. The petition was endorsed by over 100 activists and presented at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and a U.N. meeting in Paris. However, the U.S. government prevented any further debate or consideration of the charges brought forth in the petition and no further action was taken on behalf of the United Nations. 

The engagement of activists with the UN continued, partially through the work of civil rights leader Malcolm X, who tried to “internationalize” the fight for Black liberation. By reframing the rights of Black Americans as human rights, it allowed for the international community to intervene when those human rights were violated. In 1964, Malcolm X addressed the Organization of African Unity and presented a petition asking: “In the interest of world peace, we beseech the heads of the independent African states to recommend an immediate investigation into our problem by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.” This petition was never presented to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Similar to the petition that had been introduced in 1951, this was also met with opposition from U.S. government officials because of the Federal government’s involvement in silencing any outcry in international arenas about human rights violations against the Black community.

56 years later, on June 15 –23, 2020 during the 43rd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, an urgent debate was held on racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protestors. This meeting was requested by senior African leaders at the United Nations who wanted to bring attention to the murder of yet another Black American man at the hands of law enforcement. George Floyd died in police custody when an officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while restraining him during an arrest. His death shed light on the frequency of racially motivated police killings of Black people around the world, triggering a series of international protests since early June. After the UNHRC debate, a resolution titled “The promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against police brutality and other violations of human rights” was adopted. A draft of the resolution included a condemnation of the United States government, requesting a commission of inquiry and a formal investigation into systemic racism and police brutality. 

Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance Briefs Press 

Pictured: Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism 

However, following brief diplomatic negotiations, the final resolution instead called for a report to be written by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in lieu of an outright investigation. It called for all countries who grapple with these issues to be cooperative in the UNHRC’s efforts to combat racism, excessive force by law enforcement and violence against peaceful anti-racism protestors. The United States was no longer singled out. In a summary of the debate, it was noted that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had made multiple recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council to address this issue since the early 2000s. This resolution marks a moment in history when the UNHRC listened to the voices of the global Black community and took action to address and condemn current human rights violations and the historical context in which they were perpetuated. 

Although the UNHRC plays a pivotal role in condemning racism, the role of the UN in actively fighting against these types of injustices and working to prevent future atrocities takes place in several different ways, often through collaborative efforts with various UN entities. Some examples of how the UN is currently addressing prejudice and racism include: 

A large part of progress toward dismantling systems of racism, oppression and police brutality are ultimately seen in reforms to local and national laws, elimination of discriminatory policies and an overhaul of the fractured criminal justice system. As the UN turns 75 in 2020 and reflects on its role in history as a promoter of peace, now is an ideal time to encourage and advocate for transformative leadership.

On June 4th, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a resolution to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. The purpose of this commission is to “examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism and discrimination against people of color” within the context of today’s current events. As the global social justice ministry of The Collegiate Church of New York, a key element of our work at Intersections International is to shine a light on injustices at home and abroad, while offering spiritual healing, rooted engagement and meaningful dialogue. This is essential as we march forward in our collective efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation. 

Protests Against Racism in New York City