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UN Makes Landmark Call to Address Systemic Racism

International Probe of Police Violence Urgently Needed

A protester puts his hands up in front of a line of police in riot gear in the US city of Columbus, Ohio, on June 5, 2020. © 2020 Stephen Zenner / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP Images

(Geneva) – United Nations member countries at the UN Human Rights Council should take decisive action to carry out the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recommendations on systemic racism and police violence against Africans and people of African descent, Human Rights Watch said today. In the Commissioner’s June 28, 2021 report, prepared at the Human Rights Council’s request after the police killing of George Floyd in the United States on May 25, 2020, the High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, calls for UN action to spur transformative change for racial justice and equality for Africans and people of African descent globally.

The Human Rights Council should heed the High Commissioner’s call by creating a robust and independent UN mechanism mandated to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States and globally, Human Rights Watch said. The mandate should include the issues the High Commissioner examined, including law enforcement abuses in the context of the legacies of colonialism and the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans, governments’ responses to peaceful protests about racial discrimination, and the need for accountability and redress for victims of racialized police violence.

“George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others who died at the hands of police, other Black people who have suffered systemic discrimination, and racial justice protesters worldwide, all demand action, not just words, by governments and UN bodies,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program executive director at Human Rights Watch. “If the UN Human Rights Council established a strong and independent mechanism to address systemic racism and police violence in the US and globally, it would be taking decisive action with meaning.”

The report’s findings are based on consultations with over 340 people, including family members of Black people killed by police, and 110 written submissions from governments around the world and nongovernmental organizations, some of the most significant efforts undertaken by a UN body in recent years to consult directly impacted communities and center their perspectives.

Among the key findings and recommendations in the High Commissioner’s report:

  • Police violence against people of African descent in the United States and globally is linked to systemic racism in health, education, economic opportunity, and housing.
  • Police violence is enabled by criminal laws, policies, and practices of surveillance and policing that disproportionately subject Black people in the United States and elsewhere to repeated, often needless, coercive non-fatal contacts with police, especially in the context of the “war on drugs” or gang-related operations, that can escalate or lead to new incidents of police violence and killings.
  • Countries should invest in efforts to end discrimination in education, employment, health care, housing, as well as reducing gun violence, rather than primarily focusing on arrests and prosecutions. They also should strengthen police accountability measures, find alternatives to policing, especially in educational settings and when dealing with situations involving people with mental health conditions, and reform criminal laws.
  • Governmental authorities should acknowledge and repair the lasting harm of enslavement and settler colonialism by providing “adequate, effective and prompt” reparations for past and ongoing harm through broad and inclusive consultation with affected individuals and communities.

The High Commissioner prepared the report after the Human Rights Council held an urgent debate in June 2020 on racially motivated human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality, and violence against peaceful protests, following the murder of George Floyd by the police. During the debate, UN experts called on the council to create an independent international inquiry into issues of systemic racism and police violence in the US, as well as a further inquiry with a global focus. Human Rights Watch joined a broad coalition of families of victims of police brutality and civil society groups across the world who echoed this call.

Since that debate, police killings in the United States have continued unabated. Structural racism has exacerbated the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, while many of the police reforms being considered at the federal level are mere half-measures, like the US House of Representatives-passed Justice in Policing Act, while more far-reaching reforms are needed.

However, in April 2021, the US Congress made landmark progress when the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 40, a bill to establish a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery in the US and its ongoing harm, and develop proposals for reparations. The bill still needs to be passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law. If legislative avenues fail, the administration of President Joe Biden should establish an H.R. 40-style commission by executive order to signal true commitment to racial justice in the United States, Human Rights Watch said.

In her new report, the High Commissioner recommends that the Council should sustain its close engagement on these issues through the establishment of a “specific, time-bound mechanism,” or by strengthening the capacity of an existing mechanism, to examine racial justice in the context of law enforcement. These recommendations echo previous statements made by the High Commissioner calling for concrete action “to dismantle systemic racism and police brutality against Africans and people of African descent, and to advance accountability and redress for victims.” The Biden administration has stated it is committed to addressing racial inequities and the systemic racism that remains deeply entrenched in the United States.

“The Biden administration and state and local authorities in the United States should know that the world is watching to see if they take serious steps to address racism and police violence,” Austin-Hillery said. “At the same time, Black people in the United States, those who raise their voices in protest against racial injustice, and all victims of racism and police violence worldwide are watching to see if global institutions like the UN Human Rights Council will take concrete actions to end racial discrimination. The Council should not disappoint them.”

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