Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. On July 2, 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership.” The online hearing was held in compliance with H.Res.965, which provides for official remote proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), who chaired the hearing, observed, “The United States has long been a champion of human rights and democracy in our foreign policy. Many of the OSCE’s groundbreaking commitments were actually spearheaded by the United States, including those relating to anti-Semitism, freedom of religion, free elections, and the rule of law, to name only a few…Today, we look inward as we examine the Black Lives Matter protests and related domestic compliance issues in the context of our OSCE human dimensions commitments and implications for U.S. foreign policy.”
Witnesses included Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO of The Taifa Group, LLC, Convener of the Justice Roundtable, and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University; the Honorable Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE); and Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“It’s not a moment. It’s a movement.”
Witnesses emphasized that George Floyd’s death has created a movement, not just a moment, in efforts to address systemic racism, police violence, and secure justice.
Nkechi Taifa called on the United States to implement fully international human rights commitments and obligations, without legal barriers. She observed that the world is at the midpoint of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent and concluded, “What we are witnessing today is the unprecedented possibility for change.”
Malcolm Momodou Jallow observed that structural, institutional, and systemic racism— including racist violence—is not confined to the United States, but is also present in Europe. The European project includes an antidiscrimination, antiracist dimension, with a fundamental commitment to reflect the lessons of the Holocaust and eradicate past European divisions through respect for the human rights of all. Failure to do so affects entire communities, thereby eroding social cohesion, trust in public authority, the rule of law and ultimately democracy.
Mr. Jallow also drew attention to the European Parliament’s resolution, adopted on Juneteenth (June 19), on the anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death. The resolution also recalled Europe’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade; draws on the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ annual hate crimes report; and calls for closer cooperation between the European Commission and the OSCE.
“The OSCE should rise to that occasion.”
Ambassador Ian Kelly stated that security among states depends on respect for human rights within states. Actions clearing peaceful protesters, at the expense of their basic rights, cost the United States moral authority to call other countries to account. Ambassador Kelly credited the OSCE for its work to shine a light on the problems of intolerance but asserted more could and should be done in the OSCE context to expose abuses against people of color in the OSCE region.
By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and protect democracy, even under the most challenging circumstances. A willingness to respond to the human rights concerns that other countries raise with the United States in the Helsinki context has been instrumental in validating the promotion of human rights and democracy advocacy as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. The Helsinki Commission has addressed the implementation of OSCE commitments in the United States in various ways, including hearings, reports, and legislation.
The video of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests received wall-to-wall coverage throughout most of the OSCE participating States. Journalists from at least eight OSCE participating States—Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey—suffered violence while trying to report on demonstrations.
George Floyd’s death in police custody prompted demonstrations in nearly all western OSCE participating States, including more than 25 of the 30 NATO member states, supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and protesting systemic racism. In some Central European countries, the death of George Floyd has been compared to police brutality against Roma. In other countries, demonstrators have called for changes to their own national policing practices, the removal of symbols of their colonial past, and other policy changes.
There have been no BLM sympathy demonstrations in Russia, where assembly (even protests by single picketers or dolls dressed as protesters) remains highly controlled.
Heads of OSCE institutions, including the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media, have expressed concern about the actions of police, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and restrictions on press freedom. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli, expressed similar concerns in a press statement on June 1.
On June 8, 38 NGOs from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a decentralized advocacy network of independent civic groups from across the OSCE region, issued a rare joint statement of concern regarding “the United States government’s response to widespread peaceful protests against police violence.”
- Witness Biographies
- Human Rights at Home
- Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies
- Briefing: 8:46 (George Floyd)
- Press Release: Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home
- Press Release: OSCE Media Freedom Representative concerned about violence against journalists covering protests in USA, calls for protection of journalists
- Press Release: Statement of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President on the policing of protests in the United States
- Civic Solidarity Platform Statement: U.S. racism and police violence and the human dimension heritage of the OSCE
- Rep. Jim McGovern: To Regain Our Credibility on Human Rights, America Must Start At Home