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AU must keep momentum to end structural racism

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“Never before in history has such a sweeping fervor for freedom expressed itself in great mass movements which are driving down the bastion of empire.” These words of one of the founding fathers of the African Union, the late Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah came to mind as I watched the worldwide protests in solidarity with the victims of systemic racism and police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd by an American policeman.

Nkrumah made these remarks amid the groundswell of independence movements and the repeal of racist and oppressive colonial laws and institutions in Africa in the 1960s. At about the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean, black Americans were mobilising against systemic racism in the United States. 

The independence from white colonial rule in many African countries coincided with the repeal of segregationist Jim Crow laws and the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act, 1968 Civil Rights Act and 1968 Fair Housing Act. Although this legislation was certainly a watershed achievement for black Americans, it did not fully eliminate t anti-black racism and its effect on the lives of people of African descent. 

Striking parallels may be drawn between the African and African-American struggles for equality and justice, because apartheid and colonial laws imposed on Africans by Europeans shared similarities with America’s segregationist Jim Crow laws in scope, intent and effect. 

Today, African-Americans and black Africans remain subjected to the harmful effects of global anti-Black racism, in which much of global society, regardless of how long since it has dismantled the legal structures of slavery or colonialism, still actively undermines, and treats black people as inferior. It  was therefore appropriate that the AU chairperson, Moussa Mahamat Faki, issued a statement denouncing Floyd’s killing. 

The statement recalled the AU’s 1964 Resolution on Racial Discrimination and was followed by several other powerful statements and acts of solidarity from the African Writers Guild, the South African Council of Churches and senior staff with the rank of UN Under-Secretary General, among others. 

The global spread of the protests and statements makes it clear that the cruel killings of Floyd and countless others are a reminder that the fight against systemic racism, of which discriminatory and abusive policing is but a part, is yet to be won several decades or centuries after the end of colonisation, apartheid and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The patterns of abusive policing in the US and Africa share similar institutional roots that should be addressed beyond the ongoing demonstrations. 

On June 12, 54 African countries called on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to  adopt a resolution addressing  institutional racism and police brutality against people of African descent. The resolution condemned the murder of Floyd and other people of African descent, and mandated the UN high commissioner for human rights, together with UN experts to regularly report on systemic racism and rights violations against people of African descent by police. The adoption of this landmark resolution on June 19, a day celebrated annually as “Juneteenth” in the US to commemorate the end of slavery, makes it all the more significant. 

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ rights, on the basis of its mandate and Article four and five of the African Charter is particularly well placed to coordinate with the UNHRC to address these issues. These entities could carry out joint in-depth studies on how post-colonial and post-slavery security and policing institutions in Africa and the US retain remnants of repressive tools of injustice, racism and bigotry that characterised slave-era, colonial and apartheid policing tactics. 

The protests and discourse on institutionalised racism and structural inequality provide an important opportunity for the AU to reflect on how to shift its agenda on post-colonial security and defence to better represent a people and rights-driven agenda, in line with the African Charter, the 2002 Robben Island Guidelines and the AU’s Agenda 2063 .

The AU needs to engage more vigorously and consistently with regional and international human rights entities to address systemic oppression, police brutality and global, anti-black racism. Doing so would signal a meaningful recommitment to the values and goals upon which the AU was founded.

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Carine Kaneza Nantulya
Carine Kaneza Nantulya is Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

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