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  • Sydney Pickering

International Outcry and Accountability: From Apartheid to George Floyd

As the nation reckons with the Black Lives Matter movement, many have described this moment as a resurgence of the 1960s civil rights movement. Modern criticisms of institutionalized and communal racism are reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X’s sentiments. However, to understand our current civil unrest, we must acknowledge the fight for civil rights as international rather than domestic.

On June 17, 2020, Philonise Floyd, the brother of martyred George Floyd, made an urgent appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to launch an investigation into racism, police brutality, and the killings of unarmed people of color, specifically black people, in the United States. Human rights groups echoed that the US has historically curtailed the rights of African-Americans. The current administration has exacerbated disenfranchisement by failing to hold law enforcement officials accountable for human rights violations.

In response to Floyd’s appeal, the executive director of UN Women, South Africa’s Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, made an explicit reference to her time serving the UN anti-apartheids efforts, advocating that the US should be met with the same degree of international outcry. Though the systemic prejudices and police brutality engrained in the US is considered de facto racism while the South African anti-apartheid movement fought de jure racial prejudices, the similarities are obvious.

The issues of police brutality, public lynching, and degradation of African American lives in the United States is rooted in its substantial history of slavery and race-based legislation. Even at the resolution of the Civil War, confederate principles truly won. It is exactly these far-right, white supremacist ideologies that have propelled through time, despite the expulsion of de jure racism. The immense successes of the civil rights movement in the sixties and seventies allowed people to hope for a future free of legal disenfranchisement, but this is not the case today.

Similarly, African nations who have undergone decolonization processes experienced racial prejudices, both in ideology and legality, by white oppressors. By monopolizing their rights and liberties, including that to suffrage, ownership, and movement, black natives were systematically oppressed. The South African example of District Six in Cape Town illustrates the geographical segregation of black and white neighborhoods. Affluent whites congregated in gentrified areas, but native blacks were forced into slums.

This pattern manifests itself in the modern-day United States without being etched in legal code. Admittedly, tools such as redlining and white flight have allowed the federal government to create predominantly white neighborhoods, but economic, political, and cultural boundaries have kept those boundaries in place today. Most notably, impoverished, colored communities have agglomerated in “ghettos” where police presence, and thus brutality, is much higher. The patterns of colonization in South Africa mirror those of race-based segregation in America, resulting in over-policing and frequent violations against blacks. These are the same violations that sparked George Floyd-inspired protests

In fact, prominent black leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X both compared civil rights issues rooted in the racism of US history to decolonization processes, particularly in South Africa. At the 1962 American Negro Leadership Conference, King expressed how “Colonialism and segregation are nearly synonymous … because their common end is economic exploitation, political domination, and the debasing of human personality.” Remembered for his tactics of nonviolent protest, King went as far as to justify armed rebellion in South Africa, since peaceful approaches were almost always met with government aggression.

Malcolm X, who developed a reputation for his extremist approaches, took King’s comparison a step further. He argued that American racism is worse than South African racism, which “preaches segregation and practices segregation.” However, because America “preaches integration and practices segregation,” she is even more “cunning...vicious and deadly.” Malcolm X’s statement, which was made during a UN appeal to African leaders, rings true even today. Although South Africa has since ended their system of apartheid, deceit has made it difficult to fight for equal rights for the black community in the United States. Although King and Malcom X had dramatically different methods of resistance, the two agreed on the similarities between South African apartheid and US systemic racism.

Understanding the process to end apartheid in South Africa highlights just how paramount global actors were to its success. Admittedly, the United Nations struggled to influence the end of apartheid, despite it being at the top of their agenda since its founding in 1946. Research on behalf of the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs concluded that the shortcomings of the United Nations lies in their categorization of racism. They viewed racism as an issue of opinion rather than a socioeconomic one.

For roughly 45 years, member states relied on campaigns and verbal condemnations rather than substantial action. In 1962, the United Nations General Assembly denounced South Africa’s apartheid laws and encouraged member states to terminate military and economic relations. However, with no enforcement mechanism for member nations, South Africa felt minimal impact. In 1973, apartheid was officially labeled a “crime against humanity,” and one year later, South Africa was suspended from the General Assembly altogether. This agency did little else to bring about necessary change.

The “collective security” advertised by the United Nations was diminished by Western powers and larger trading partners who opposed a full economic and military embargo against South Africa during that time. It is no surprise that policies implemented by the US and European Community brought about change in a few short years. In 1985, the European Community imposed strict trade and financial sanctions. The United States Congress followed suit and passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) that severely hurt South Africa through loan restrictions and import bans. According to research conducted by the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, the implementation of sanctions on South Africa by the European Community and the United States imposed damaging economic, political, social, and psychological effects. By isolating South Africa from the United Nations and singling out the nation from the international community through trade sanctions, international efforts allowed for the success of the anti-apartheid campaign.

The end to South African apartheid has produced lessons for successful domestic and international resistance. Martin Luther King Jr. justified the use of violent protests when peaceful means do not work, as seen in South Africa. As peaceful marches in the United States are met with police brutality, tear gas, and rubber bullets today, we should not dismiss the cries of those who have no other method of expression. But just as protesters alone did not end South African apartheid laws, Black Lives Matter protests alone will not end systemic racism and police brutality. Petitions and legislation will also not be sufficient.

The answer is international accountability. The United Nations was established with the goals of peace, collective security, social progress, better living standards, and human rights. Despite the central role the United States plays in the maintenance of the United Nations, it is only just that every member state abides by the mission of this core institution. The possibility of investigations, membership suspension, and economic sanctions against the United States must be considered. We must understand racism as a threat to human rights as long as prejudicial institutions and ideologies survive. The existence of racism is a threat that goes beyond the United Nations. So long as this notion exists, every nation must hold the United States accountable for the everlasting impacts of slavery, disenfranchisement, and human rights violations.

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