GENEVA/CAIRO – Clashes between police and protesters in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson are reminiscent of the racial violence spawned by apartheid in her native South Africa, the top U.N. human rights official said in an interview Tuesday.
Navi Pillay, who is due to step down at the end of the month after six years, urged U.S. authorities to investigate allegations of brutality and examine the “root causes” of racial discrimination in America.
U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday called for calm and a change in police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by clashes after a white officer killed an unarmed black teenager 10 days ago.
“I condemn the excessive use of force by the police and call for the right of protest to be respected. The United States is a freedom-loving country, and one thing they should cherish is people’s right to protest,” Pillay said in a wide-ranging interview in her office along Lake Geneva.
“Apart from that, let me say that coming from apartheid South Africa, I have long experience of how racism and racial discrimination breeds conflict and violence,” she said. “These scenes are familiar to me, and privately I was thinking that there are many parts of the United States where apartheid is flourishing.”
Noting that African-Americans are often among the poorest and most vulnerable U.S. citizens, and account for many of the inmates in the country’s teeming prisons, she added, “Apartheid is also where law turns a blind eye to racism.”
Scenes of heavily armed American police and now National Guard troops confronting demonstrators have become daily fixtures on television around the world, not least in countries branded abusers of human rights by the United States.
From Egypt urging “restraint” on U.S. police to Iran calling Washington the “biggest violator of human rights” and Chinese state media suggesting it clean up its own act before “pointing fingers at others,” Ferguson has been seized on by governments weary of criticism from the United States and the U.N. watchdog.
“There isn’t a country in the world which has a perfect human rights record and doesn’t have these kind of issues that emerge,” Pillay said. “In other countries, this is what I urge: that it should be properly addressed, whether in Egypt, China or any other country. You have to have fair trials and afford proper defense, and they should not be spurious charges.”
Egypt on Tuesday urged U.S. authorities to exercise restraint in dealing with racially charged demonstrations in Ferguson, echoing language that Washington used to caution Egypt as it cracked down on Islamist protesters last year. Although it is common for traditional U.S. foes like Iran and Syria to lambast the United States, it is unusual for Egypt to criticize such a major donor.
Ties between Washington and Cairo were strained after Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters following the army’s ousting of freely elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Meanwhile, in a second day of Twitter messages about the disturbances in Ferguson, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed the United States as “egotistical and unreliable” while seeking to link the unrest to Washington’s support of Israel, sworn foe of Tehran.
“Brutal treatment of black people isn’t indeed the only anti-human rights act by U.S. govt; look at U.S.’s green light to #Israel’s crimes,” he wrote on Monday, adding Washington is the world’s “biggest violator” of human rights.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Takht Ravanchi on Monday accused Washington of “racist behavior and oppression,” the Fars News Agency said.
In Syria, a bulletin from state news agency SANA accused police in Ferguson of “racist and oppressive practices.”
Pro-government media in Turkey, where the authorities came under U.S. criticism for a heavy-handed clampdown on weeks of protests around Istanbul’s Gezi Park last year, also took a swipe.
“You (the United States) were sounding off when Gezi was happening. . . . You crook with double standards,” wrote Ahmet Sagirli, a columnist in the pro-government Turkiye newspaper.