Mandela, Floyd, apartheid, uprisings, and unrest.

Transformational leadership is the ability of a leader to guide nations and organizations alike, focusing on a clear vision, motivation, being a change agent, and building trust. These are the cornerstones of great leadership. One such leader that comes to mind is former President of South Africa, the late, Nelson “Rolihlahla” Mandela. At a time in history when the worse form of segregation, codified into a statutory system called Apartheid, was taken place, Mandela emerged as the first-ever elected President. He dismantled the legacy of the apartheid regime, institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality. He brought diversity into government, established the truth and reconciliation commission to foster racial reconciliation, and reestablished the balance of power for land owners. What did it take for the nation’s heart transformation? It took time, people’s lives, and 27 years of imprisonment of the greatest leader of all time. 

Has history taught us anything? We read books about our famous heroes that marched for justice and equality, for the right to vote, and to have equal and fair wages, thinking that these are problems of the past: We are free now. In the 1930s, our honoured Nelson Mandela was also free. Free to get an excellent legal education, free to marry and to become the next chief. Yet, when the 22-year-old ran away to south Johannesburg, now called Soweto, he saw for the first time what the lives of native Africans were like: Confined in overcrowded shantytowns or slums, where it was insanitary, no electricity, no telephones, and poor road conditions. Police visited these slums continuously in search for vagrants. This is where Nelson’s political education began, yes, this is where the vision was birthed (BENSON, M., 1994, Nelson Mandela:The Man and the Movement, Penguin). 

May Day 1950 was when the workforce stayed home. Protesters called for the removal of the colour bar in parliament, in education, in industry and in the administration. This became the turning point in Mandela’s life because he saw first-hand the ruthlessness of the police, as well as being deeply impressed by the support African workers and Indians gave to the May Day call. “Chiefs and followers, leaders of political associations, ministers, teachers, journalists and lawyers came together from all parts of South Africa and overcame division of tribes and languages, rural and urban backgrounds” (BENSON,1994).

70 years later, May 25, 2020, an African-American was killed because a police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes in Minneapolis, USA. Similar ruthless police practices sparked worldwide protest, every continent, language, and government came together to protest by kneeling for change. “The fight against all forms of racism and racial discrimination remains a priority for us,” said Michael Ungern-Sternberg, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Germany to the United Nations Office at Geneva. “The past weeks, many people around the world raised their voices and took to the streets to send a clear signal that racism and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against minority populations cannot (any) longer be accepted.” Again, has history taught us anything?

See my blog: Police Abusive Use of Force: Yatim and Floyd Case

Uprisings and protests were happening in the 1950s just as they are happening now in 2020. As the unrest of protesters and anti-apartheid leaders spread and became more effective and militarized, state organizations responded with repression and violence (BENSON, 1994). The government banned all opposition, and police officers enforced curfews, causing many anti-apartheid leaders to be imprisoned, including Mandela. Similarly, the United States chose to respond to the nationwide demonstrations after police in Minneapolis killed African American George Floyd, in a manner that undermined our fundamental rights “…the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur. We are watching history play over again, the police brutality and the governments adverse response to the protests.

In 1951, Mandela chose to become a change agent for his nation and his people. He was a lawyer, a founding member of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), and appointed as volunteer-in-chief of the defiance campaign. “This campaign was designed to organize a large-scale resistance movement and work toward the repeal of discriminatory legislation” (JAMES, R., 2011, Nelson Mandela, Great Neck Publishing, Database: MasterFILE Premier). Mandela was arrested because he was fighting for his nation’s heart transformation. His prosecution for treason, and a lengthy prison sentence did only one thing; it bolstered Mandela’s vision for justice and equality. It was behind bars, that the transformational leader emerged. Upon his release, Mandela built the South African civil rights movement; and in 1991, became the president of the ANC, the rest is history: South Africa held its first-ever free elections on April 27, 1994. With majority of the votes given to ANC, Mandela was elected president. It was victory, not just for one race, but for an entire nation.

The death of Floyd has stirred our nation’s heart in a profound way. And it is the spirit of 46-year-old Floyd that became the transformational leader that the world desperately needed to see the vision. So, transformation requires time, people’s lives, and imprisonment. Sometimes history has to be repeated for our nations to take a stand for the vision that our beloved heroes, like Mandela stood for.

Human Rights Council calls on top UN rights official to take action on racist violence

Written by: Human Rights, June 19 2020.

The unarmed African-American’s death on 25 May was captured on video while a police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes in Minneapolis, sparking worldwide protest.

During the debate on racism, alleged police brutality and violence against protesters that preceded the resolution’s adoption, no less than120 speakers took the floor.

Many expressed sympathy for the family of Mr. Floyd, whose brother also addressed Council members in Geneva, in a passionate pre-recorded video message in which he urged the United Nations to act.

No international probe

Although some delegates had called for an international probe to investigate killings of black people in America, and violence against demonstrators, others maintained that the issue impacted on all nations, and required a broader approach.

In line with the final version of the resolution text, the High Commissioner should “prepare a report on systemic racism, violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the death of George Floyd and other Africans and of people of African descent”.

The text also calls on Ms. Bachelet – assisted by UN appointed independent rights experts and committees “to examine government responses to anti-racism peaceful process peaceful protests, including the alleged use of excessive force against protesters, bystanders and journalists”.

Overseeing the resolution, Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger (Austria), President of the Human Rights Council (14th cycle) announced that the text was ready for their consideration and asked whether a vote could be dispensed with, in light of the general consensus.

‘An historic step’

“Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I have been informed that a number of resolutions are ready for adoption during this meeting as shown on the screen…So, I would like to ask if there is a request from anybody for a vote…I see none, so may I take it that the draft proposal L50 as orally revised may be adopted without a vote? It is so decided.”

In his address to Member States as coordinator of the African Group, Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso to the United Nations Office, declared the Urgent Debate “an historic step” in the combat against racism of which the Human Rights Council could be “proud”.

“The international outrage caused by the tragic events that led to the death of George Floyd underlined the urgency and importance for the Human Rights Council to raise its voice against injustice and police brutality which African people and people of African descent are faced with every day in many regions of the world,” he said.

The Council also heard widespread declarations of support for an investigation into violence against protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Racism will remain ‘a priority’

“The fight against all forms of racism and racial discrimination remains a priority for us,” said Michael Ungern-Sternberg, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Germany to the United Nations Office at Geneva. “The past weeks, many people around the world raised their voices and took to the streets to send a clear signal that racism and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against minority populations cannot (any) longer be accepted.”

Other speakers insisted that the resolution was necessary and important in promoting awareness about systemic racism, and in continuing the work of implementing key pledges taken to combat the scourge in 2002 at the Durban World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

“Black lives matter,” said Ambassador Coly Seck, Permanent Representative of Senegal to the United Nations Office at Geneva. Racism continues to happen in many countries too, he said, noting that it was in “flagrant contradiction” to the UN Charter in which we place our faith in the basic rights of man and in the value of the human person”.

UN independent experts voice ‘profound concern’ over US Government accusations of ‘domestic terrorism’

And in another human rights development concerning the fallout from protests over George Floyd’s death in the US, UN independent experts on Friday expressed “profound concern” over a recent statement by the US Attorney-General describing the so-called Antifa movement and other anti-fascist activists as “domestic terrorists”, saying it undermines the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly in the country.

“International human rights law protects the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”, said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

“It is regrettable that the United States has chosen to respond to the protests in a manner that undermines these fundamental rights.”

Following nationwide demonstrations that began after police in Minneapolis killed African American George Floyd, US Attorney General William Barr warned that alleged violence carried out by Antifa and other movements “is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly”, noted the press release issued by the UN rights office, OHCHR.

‘Loose use of terrorist rhetoric’

Although there has not been an legislative action taken following the 31 May statement, Ms. Ní Aoláin – an expert lawyer who worked extensively in the human rights and terrorism-related field in her native Northern Ireland – said that the “the loose use of terrorism rhetoric undermines legitimate protests and dampens freedom of expression in the United States, which has been a hallmark of US constitutional values, and a beacon far beyond its shores”.UN Special Procedures@UN_SPExperts

🇺🇲 #UnitedStates: UN expert @NiAolainF says the loose use of #terrorism rhetoric by the US Administration undermines legitimate protests and dampens freedom of expression in the country. Learn more: http://ow.ly/QN4130qRBpv 

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Echoing the unease expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding structural race discrimination in the US, particularly in the realm of policing, the Special Rapporteur said that regulating protests and violence through the lens of counter-terrorism may only sharpen divisions and accentuate tensions, fuelling further human rights violations.

The group of independent experts strongly recommend that the violent elements among peaceful protesters who have been identified by law enforcement, be dealt with fairly, and in accordance to due process under existing penal law.

Ms. Ní Aoláin is urging the US Government to take a human rights-based approach in their response to protests and violence and avoid the misuse and misappropriation of the language of terrorism.

“Unless it does, the Government risks cheapening grave crimes that fall under the rubric of terrorism and failing to fulfil fundamental obligations to ensure counter-terrorism measures are fully compliant with international human rights law.”

The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council constitute the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, and they address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work, as well as being independent from any government or organization.