This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.
Human history is steeped in violence, war, and oppression. In the past, this manifested itself in wars of conquest, slavery, and colonialism. Today, oppression frequently wears the cloak of state power and takes the form of mass incarceration and police brutality. Our focus here is on the latter. This moment is a fitting one to consolidate a body of work by activists, academics, and other civil society organisations into an international instrument capturing our shared commitment to finally eradicating police brutality everywhere.
On 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, Officer Derek Chauvin, during an arrest, knelt on the neck of George Floyd, for nearly nine minutes. George Floyd was handcuffed and lying on the ground. He posed no threat to Derek Chauvin; he was neither resisting arrest nor fleeing. After crying out repeatedly, saying he could not breathe, George Floyd died calling out to his deceased mother.
The gut-wrenching video of George Floyd’s murder sparked protests in cities across the United States that soon went global.
“This moment is a fitting one… to capture our shared commitment to finally eradicating police brutality everywhere”
In many parts of the world, protestors have seized on the moment to reflect not only on the death of George Floyd, but also on the state of justice, equality, and freedom in their own countries and cities. Protestors worldwide have been able to link the international moment to their local struggles; to use international solidarity to fuel local change; and to analyse the complexities of the issues at hand, identifying the inadequacies of policies governing law enforcement officials in their own contexts. At least eight African countries have seen protests, including here in South Africa.
The response of Africa’s leaders to protestors in their own countries crying out for justice has been to keep their eyes abroad, zooming into police brutality on people of African descent. Burkina Faso, on behalf of 54 African countries, requested an urgent debate in the United Nations Human Rights Council on “racially inspired human rights violations, police brutality against people of African descent and the violence against the peaceful protests that call for these injustices to stop”. The debate was scheduled for Wednesday, 17 June 2020. It has also been reported that the African Union has drafted a resolution in the same vein.
“Police brutality is not confined to the United States”
The question we should ask on the back of these developments is whether resolutions and debates are an adequate and constructive response to the global outcry. George Floyd’s death is widely understood to flow from the systemic racism endemic to American policing. But police brutality is not confined to the United States, and black people are not only victimised by American or white police officers. In South Africa, where we live, police brutality similarly affects the black poor disproportionately. Our President, Cyril Ramaphosa, is the African Union Chairperson for 2020. How will the indictment of the United States by the United Nations make African people safer here and around the world?
Racism must be eradicated. We must do the work now to make sure that future generations only ever learn about racism in textbooks as a barbaric historical notion long repudiated by all people everywhere. But the work of eradicating racism is a battle fought in the hearts and minds of people who resist reason, and resist change to status quo power structures. These are people who are unwilling to imagine an egalitarian society, and unable to hear us or acknowledge our equal existence. The dignity and the safety of citizens should not depend on the disposition of anyone’s heart and mind.
World leaders must rethink the framework within which law enforcement operates in their respective countries. They must embed safeguards into institutional frameworks to prevent the abuse of power and the unjustifiable killing of civilians by law enforcement officials.
“The dignity and the safety of citizens should not depend on the disposition of anyone’s heart and mind”
More than expensive international inquiries and debates, we need to advocate for the creation of a binding treaty that requires signatories to: (1) implement legal policy measures at the national level to prevent police brutality and violent enforcement of democratic laws, and (2) to ensure accountability where prevention fails. These measures must be designed to ensure that the safety of civilians is not dependent on the mood of malevolent, benighted officers.
Much of the work has already been done. Activists and organisations worldwide have invested great effort and resources into researching the mechanisms that are most effective for combatting police brutality and violent enforcement of the law. The time and resources of the African Union would be better spent consolidating this body of work into a binding standard against which all states should be monitored and evaluated.
The aim of any treaty on policing ought not to be prescribing how policing is done. Sovereign states have the right and the power to adopt policing models that are suited to the context within which they are to operate. The objective should be to set forth the critical features which must be present to ensure that whichever model is implemented, it prioritises lives and human rights, maximising justice and freedom for all civilians.
“Pointing fingers is easy and talk is cheap…we need a binding treaty”
Amongst the areas in which minimum standards must be set are:
- The models of policing adopted
- Accountability and oversight mechanisms
- Ethics in policing
- Good practice in policing
- Standards of training
- Sanctions against unlawful police activity
This approach of consolidating concrete policy proposals into a legally binding instrument has, as its greatest merit, the focus on problem solving. Pointing fingers is easy and talk is cheap. Solidarity is needed, but it is a means to an end. It is only useful insofar as it builds momentum towards action and change.
What Africans need from Africa’s Heads of State, more than solidarity, is leadership and action. The resources of the African Union are best aimed at a concrete goal such as the creation of an internationally accepted standard of policing that prioritises the lives, the well-being and the rights of citizens above the prerogatives of the police. This approach is closer to ‘government for the people’ rather than the prevailing norm of ‘power over the people’.
If the death of George Floyd is to be a watershed moment, let it mark a shift from police brutality to accountable policing. If, in the aftermath to George Floyd’s tragedy, the murder of a civilian by an on-duty policeman constituted a priority crime, taken as seriously as the murder of police officers, we would move closer to a free society. When the murder of a civilian by agents of the state is seen as crime exceeding that of a civilian against the state, then we will have a human rights-centred approach to policing. Because the chief aim of the state is the freedom and security of mankind, not the other way around.
End Police Brutality Photo: Taymaz Valley, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)