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UN Human Rights Chief Urges Immediate, Transformative Action To Uproot Systemic Racism

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

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

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

“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

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

“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

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

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.

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

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

“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

“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

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

Video material available for

UN Human Rights High Commissioner
Michelle Bachelet comment in English, Spanish and
Portuguese. All material is available to download on the
following link:

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:

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