Minnesota Law

Summer 2023

U.N. Experts Make Historic Visit to Minnesota

Individuals, family members, and community leaders testified before a U.N. human rights panel investigating racial injustice in law enforcement in the United States

The eyes of the world were on Minnesota three years ago when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. Acknowledging the persistent and systemic violence against Black people at the hands of law enforcement, and under pressure from advocates demanding action, the United Nations Human Rights Council launched a new mechanism in 2021 to investigate the root causes of these human rights violations in the United States and around the world. 

Yet even though the new body was informally called the “U.N. George Floyd Mechanism,” it seemed unlikely that the 12-day country visit would include the Twin Cities. Minnesota community leaders swung into action, supported by human rights experts at University of Minnesota and Minnesota Law. They collaborated to call on the U.N. International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice in the Context of Law Enforcement (U.N.-EMLER) to put Minneapolis on its agenda. In April, the mechanism announced that it would visit Minneapolis, in addition to Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. 

Overall, U.N.-EMLER aims to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and people of African descent, instigating transformative change for racial justice and equality in law enforcement through international human rights law. Its human rights experts will issue a report to the UN Human Rights Council in September detailing the findings and recommendations from its investigation into the United States. 

In May, individuals, family members, and community activists testified before U.N.-EMLER experts about their experiences with police violence and systemic racism in law enforcement in Minnesota. The UN representatives heard testimony from more than a dozen people about the impact of police violence on their families and communities and the lasting consequences of disciplinary and detention practices, including solitary confinement of youth. 

Family members of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Amir Locke, and Emmett Till, as well as relatives of individuals whose names are not globally known provided poignant and agonizing testimony to the experts—something they have done repeatedly to press for justice, police reform, and specific legal and policy changes, says Amanda Lyons ’09, executive director of the Human Rights Center at Minnesota Law. But this time was different. 

“Everyone in the country and even around the world knows these names. But behind them are hundreds of others,” Lyons says. “The family members are meeting with local officials all the time. But on this occasion, they were able to speak to the UN in hopes that the experts can echo their message in a new way with the media and policymakers.” 

The Human Rights Center belongs to the Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers’ Network, a group of more than 800 lawyers and advocates that deploys human rights law for social justice in the United States. When the U.N. announced its U.S. country visit, the Center worked to spread the word in Minnesota about the mechanism, mobilizing human rights experts at the University and other organizations. The Center also helped build connections between national and local advocates to make their case for UN-EMLER to bring its investigation to Minnesota.

Human rights attorney Elina Castillo-Jiménez, the Human Rights Center Weissbrodt Fellow, led the outreach and organizing of University partners and a network of local activists and groups. Together, the coalition submitted seven written requests to the U.N. body, including a sign-on letter with thousands of signatures. Eventually, U.N.-EMLER announced it would hold a one-day session in Minneapolis. 

Elina Castillo-Jiménez, the Human Rights Center Weissbrodt Fellow

Castillo-Jiménez worked with leaders of local organizations including Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, Atlas of Blackness, Urban League Twin Cities, and the Legal Rights Center to structure the event around two main issues. U.N.-EMLER sought information about the use of solitary confinement of incarcerated youth and other disciplinary measures used disproportionately against BIPOC students. It also wanted to learn about systemic racism in policing. Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence convened and supported affected individuals and families’ to testify to the impact of losing a loved one to police violence, living in overpoliced communities, and the surveillance, harassment, and mistreatment that family members face in seeking justice. 

“There was this sense of pain and resilience and solidarity, with people who were there to speak the truth and people who were there to show support, and others to gather insights and change policies. Overall, it was a historic day.”
Elina Castillo-Jiménez, Human Rights Center Weissbrodt Fellow

Though advocates wanted the experts to dive deeper into the issues, it was still an impactful day, Castillo-Jiménez says. “There is real power in having this sort of public event where people who have endured human rights violations take up space, share their experience, and speak their truth to others who are there to listen,” she says. “There was this sense of pain and resilience and solidarity, with people who were there to speak the truth and people who were there to show support, and others to gather insights and change policies. Overall, it was a historic day.”

On top of holding sessions like the one in Minneapolis, the U.N.-EMLER panel spent its U.S. visit meeting with government officials at the federal, state, and local levels, law enforcement, and civil society organizations. The mechanism also will examine laws, policies, and practices regulating the use of force in the U.S. and make recommendations about accountability and ways to address human rights violations by law enforcement against Black people. 

In its preliminary statement issued in May, the delegation acknowledged some promising initiatives at the state level in the U.S. to combat discrimination affecting Black people. Yet it noted that racial discrimination, rooted in the legacy of slavery, permeates all contacts with law enforcement, starting in school and moving through to racial profiling, arrest, detention, and sentencing, with a disproportional impact on people of African descent. 

“The mechanism feels an urgency, and a moral responsibility, to echo the harrowing pain of victims and their resounding calls for accountability and support, which it heard throughout its journey,” the panel said in a statement. It called for “whole-of-government reforms,” including federal standards of policing and strong accountability measures for past and future violations. 

Regardless of the recommendations, the effort to have the U.N. bear witness to systemic racism and how it affects Minnesotans will have an enduring impact. “Sometimes, one of the most important lasting benefits of a UN visit is bringing together groups and strengthening a shared agenda,” Lyons says. “With others in this coalition, we are committed to following the ground-breaking work of the U.N. mechanism and leveraging these international opportunities to advance justice and reform in Minnesota.”