As human rights NGOs and activists react to the violent crackdowns and institutional racism in the US, the double standard is becoming clearer.
Rabat – International human rights NGOs and activists have risen up as one to call for an end to institutional racism in the US in the wake of the tragic, violent death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers. Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), among others, have all published carefully worded reports on President Donald Trump’s administration and the mass arrests of protestors.
Three questions loom in the background of the global outrage: First, why did it take the death of yet another black man at the hands of US police for the global community to react? And, second, would a reaction have come sooner had the story played out in, say, the Middle East or Africa?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, has the racism HRW and AI are battling against already seeped into their own psyches and taken a hold of their global outlook?
A failure to respect rights or a clear violation?
In a press release on May 31, Rachel Ward, National Director of Research at Amnesty International USA, said, “Racism and white supremacy are fuelling these killings and the police response to the protests.”
“President Trump must end his violent and discriminatory rhetoric and policies, and the US government – at all levels – must ensure the right to protest as guaranteed by international law,” she continued.
US police, she said, “are failing” in their duty “to respect and facilitate the right to peaceful protest.”
Meanwhile, Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program director at Human Rights Watch, said “the anger and frustration driving mass protests across the US is about more than the criminal actions of the police officers who killed George Floyd. It is about a law enforcement system that does not value all people equally and sacrifices the lives and well-being of black people as a result.”
No one with a conscience or an awareness of basic human rights could disagree with these clear and carefully worded statements of condemnation. However, one might argue that the worsening situation in the US calls for a much stronger response.
Perhaps one similar to this: “The resumption of sweeping arbitrary arrests targeting groups of political and other civil society activists is a clear indication that the right to freedom of assembly and expression in Algeria is still very much under threat,” Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) wrote in September 2019, after the Algerian government had arrested hundreds of protesters.
“The Algerian authorities must recognize that peaceful protesters’ calls for radical change will not just go away. They must listen to peaceful protesters instead of trying to crack down on them,” she added.
In 2011, Amnesty International released a report urging Morocco to “end the violent crackdown on protests.”
“What we are witnessing is a draconian response to people merely exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly,” Amnesty International said. “The Moroccan security forces must not repeat the same mistakes that they have made in recent weeks, where peaceful protests were subject to violent crackdowns.”
While the interventions in both Morocco and Algeria were justified, the drastic contrast in wording between the reports on police crackdowns in North Africa and in North America cannot go unnoticed. A “draconian response” or “violent crackdown” remains a human rights violation, whether they are in the MENA region or the USA.
The contrast seems all the more strange considering the number of US citizens who have died in police custody or during arrest. In 2019, over police fatally shot over 1000 US citizens. Morocco, on the other hand, does not have a reputation or a record for violent deaths during arrest.
Mass arrests and crackdowns
Since the start of the US protest movement, police have arrested over 10,000 demonstrators. Andrew Stroehlein, European Media Director for HRW tweeted: “Maybe it’s just me, but it would seem a whole lot easier for the US authorities to regularly arrest the perpetrators of police brutality instead. That would save a lot of trouble…”
Does this not call for a clear condemnation of human rights violations rather than a flippant quip? And, why is a police clampdown and mass arrests during peaceful protests a human rights violation in a Global South country but not in a global superpower?
On June 1, President Trump, styled by some as “the leader of the free world,” threatened to deploy the military if state governors could end the anti-police brutality protests.
“We have the greatest country in the world,” he said. “We’re going to keep it safe.”
Over Trump’s speech at the White House’s Rose Garden, National Guard soldiers could be heard attempting to disperse peaceful protestors, while tear gas canisters exploded in the faces of peaceful unarmed American demonstrators to clear out the area before Trump passed through en route to St. John’s Church.
Does this constitute “failing to respect and facilitate the right to peaceful protest,” or actively impeding and violating the right to peaceful protest?
Amnesty International called on the UK to “review exports of security equipment to US police forces” after the news emerged the European country had been supplying its ally across the pond with tear gas and rubber bullets.
“There’s a very real risk of UK-manufactured tear gas or rubber bullets being used against George Floyd protesters,” said Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s Military, Security and Police Programme Director.
Looking back to November 2019, when Haitian authorities used tear gas on anti-government protestors, AI was quick to call out the police brutality and crackdown as a human rights violation, not a mere “failure to respect ” human rights.
“The images that we have verified shed light on human rights violations by the Haitian authorities. The security forces under the command of President Jovenel Moïse have used excessive force. Such incidents must be investigated promptly, thoroughly, and effectively,” said the AI Americas director.
‘A recipe for disaster’
On June 4, in the wake of mass arrests and use of unnecessary violence to control anti-racism protests, constituting both a violation of freedom of expression and freedom to peacefully protest, HRW America Director Austin-Hillery took to Twitter
“President Trump is filling Washington, D.C., and other cities, with federal law enforcement officers ill-prepared for street protests. This seems more about Trump trying to look strong than ensuring peaceful protests. It is a recipe for disaster,” she wrote.
One cannot help but wonder, if a Middle Eastern president or the leader of a Sub-Saharan African country were to fill the country’s capital with police to shut down protests, would the wording of this tweet be stronger? Is it merely a “recipe for disaster” or an abuse of power and a violation of basic rights?
Perhaps the Amnesty International and HRW directors and communications officers are afraid of incurring the wrath of President Trump, fearing that he might, in a child-like rage, threaten to withdraw funding or aim his angry, bizarrely-worded tweets at them.
Or, perhaps more likely, deeply-seated within their organizations is a silent assumption that human rights abuses are things that happen in the Global South, in less-developed countries in the MENA region, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. Perhaps, these NGOs, born in the West, do not truly believe the US needs lessons in the international laws it helped to develop.