UN Human Rights Chief urges immediate, transformative action to uproot systemic racism

OHCHR

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GENEVA (28 June 2021) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday issued an urgent call for States to adopt a “transformative agenda” to uproot systemic racism, as she published a report casting a spotlight on the litany of violations of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights suffered by people of African descent – on a daily basis and across different States and jurisdictions.

The report states that the worldwide mobilization of people calling for racial justice has forced a long-delayed reckoning with racism and shifted debates towards a focus on the systemic nature of racism and the institutions that perpetrate it.

“The status quo is untenable,” High Commissioner Bachelet said. “Systemic racism needs a systemic response. There needs to be a comprehensive rather than a piecemeal approach to dismantling systems entrenched in centuries of discrimination and violence. We need a transformative approach that tackles the interconnected areas that drive racism, and lead to repeated, wholly avoidable, tragedies like the death of George Floyd.”

“I am calling on all States to stop denying, and start dismantling, racism; to end impunity and build trust; to listen to the voices of people of African descent; and to confront past legacies and deliver redress.”

The UN Human Rights Office was mandated in June 2020 by Human Rights Council resolution 43/1 – in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the United States – to produce a comprehensive report on systemic racism, violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, government responses to anti-racism peaceful protests, as well as accountability and redress for victims.

The analysis carried out by the Office is based on online consultations with over 340 individuals, mostly of African descent; over 110 written contributions, including with States; on a review of publicly available material; and on additional consultations with relevant experts.

The report details the “compounding inequalities” and “stark socioeconomic and political marginalization” that afflict people of African descent in many States. Across numerous countries, most notably in North and  South America and in Europe, people of African descent disproportionately live in poverty and face serious barriers in accessing their rights to education, healthcare, employment, adequate housing and clean water, as well as to political participation, and other fundamental human rights.

“The dehumanization of people of African descent […] has sustained and cultivated a tolerance for racial discrimination, inequality and violence,” the report says.

In examining deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials in different countries with varying legal systems, the report found “striking similarities” and patterns – including in the hurdles families face in accessing justice.

While there is a lack of comprehensive official disaggregated data in individual countries regarding police killings of people of African descent, a patchwork of available data paints “an alarming picture of system-wide, disproportionate and discriminatory impacts on people of African descent in their encounters with law enforcement and the criminal justice system in some States,” the report says.

The report sets out three key contexts in which police-related fatalities have occurred most frequently: the policing of minor offences, traffic stops and stop-and-searches; the intervention of law enforcement officials as first responders in mental health crises; and the conduct of special police operations in the context of the “war on drugs” or gang-related operations. In many of the cases examined, the information shared indicates that the victims did not appear to pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to law enforcement officials, or to the public, that would justify the level of force used.

The High Commissioner’s analysis of 190 deaths demonstrated that law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable for human rights violations and crimes against people of African descent, due in part to deficient investigations, a lack of independent and robust oversight and complaint and accountability mechanisms, and a widespread “presumption of guilt” against people of African descent. With rare exceptions, investigations, prosecutions, trials and judicial decisions fail to consider the role that racial discrimination, stereotypes and institutional bias may have played in the deaths. Seven illustrative cases were particularly closely examined: Luana Barbosa dos Reis Santos and João Pedro Matos Pinto (Brazil); George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (United States); Kevin Clarke (United Kingdom); Janner (Hanner) García Palomino (Colombia) and Adama Traoré (France).

Families of those who died after an encounter with law enforcement officials told UN human rights staff of their fervent desire to establish the truth about how their loved ones died, to hold those responsible to account as well as to prevent others from suffering a similar fate. Many of the families “felt continuously betrayed by the system,” and spoke of “a profound lack of trust,” the report notes, adding that “it often falls on victims and families to fight for accountability without adequate support.”

“Several families described to me the agony they faced in pursuing truth, justice and redress – and the distressing presumption that their loved ones somehow ‘deserved it’,” Bachelet said. “It is disheartening that the system is not stepping up to support them. This must change.”

The report also sets out concerns of “excessive policing of Black bodies and communities, making them feel threatened rather than protected,” citing the criminalization of children of African descent as one key issue.

Credible and consistent allegations were also received about differential treatment, and unnecessary and disproportionate use of force in the context of anti-racism protests, notably in the United States. In that context, large numbers of protesters were arrested, the report notes, and there were numerous disparaging comments from officials against the protesters, including labelling them as “terrorists” and “sick and deranged anarchists and agitators”.

The report states that while charges were reportedly dropped against the majority of those arrested, “the clampdown on anti-racism protests that has occurred in some countries must be seen within a broader context in which individuals who stand up against racism face reprisals, including harassment, intimidation and sometimes violence.”

“The voices of those seeking racial justice and equality for people of African descent must be heard and acted on,” the report says, adding that civil society activism is “crucial for advancing ideas and aspirational goals in the public domain as a constructive way of affecting change.”

“The Black Lives Matter movement and other civil society groups led by people of African descent have provided grassroots leadership through listening to communities,” Bachelet said. “They are also providing people with the necessary agency and empowerment that enables them to claim their human rights. Such efforts should receive funding, public recognition and support.”

The High Commissioner’s recommendations included that the Human Rights Council either establish a specific, time-bound mechanism, or strengthen an existing mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement in all parts of the world.

The report also identifies a “long-overdue need to confront the legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism, and to seek reparatory justice.”

While the report highlights some promising local, national and regional initiatives to undertake truth-seeking and limited forms of reparations, including memorialization, acknowledgements, apologies and litigation, “no State has comprehensively accounted for the past or for the current impact of systemic racism.” Instead, there remains a pervasive failure to acknowledge the existence and impact of systemic racism and its linkages with enslavement and colonialism.

The High Commissioner called upon all States to adopt “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” reforms and responses, through adequately resourced national and regional action plans and concrete measures developed through national dialogues, with the meaningful participation and representation of people of African descent.

She stressed the importance of “debunking false narratives that have permitted a succession of racially discriminatory policies and systems to persist and enabled people and governments to deny both what is still happening now, as well as what happened in the past.”

“States must show stronger political will to accelerate action for racial justice, redress and equality through specific, time-bound commitments to achieve results. This will involve reimagining policing, and reforming the criminal justice system, which have consistently produced discriminatory outcomes for people of African descent,” Bachelet said. “It is essential that we finally act to ensure that problematic cycles and patterns do not just go on repeating themselves. There is no excuse to continue avoiding truly transformative change. My Office stands ready to assist States in pursuing transformative change towards justice and equality.”

“Racial discrimination in law enforcement cannot, as the Human Rights Council recognized, be separated from questions of systemic racism,” the High Commissioner concluded. “Only approaches that tackle both the endemic shortcomings in law enforcement, and address systemic racism – and the legacies it is built on – will do justice to the memory of George Floyd and so many others whose lives have been lost or irreparably damaged.”

To find the full Report, and the accompanying detailed Conference Room Paper, go to:  OHCHR | Implementation of Human Rights Council resolution 43/1

Video material available for broadcasters:

UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet comment in English, Spanish and Portuguese. All material is available to download on the following link: https://vimeo.com/user/98071428/folder/4803673

Also available:  excerpts of an interview conducted by the UN Human Rights Office with Philonise Floyd. This material is available to download on the following link: https://vimeo.com/567055439

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