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UN Rights Body Should Greenlight Global Racism Probe

States Need to Grapple with Colonial Pasts, Address Root Causes of Systemic Racism

Delegates attend a session on racism and police brutality, a resolution in the wake of the death of George Floyd, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on June 19, 2020. © 2020 Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

Within the next week, the United Nations Human Rights Council will consider whether to adopt a resolution by its African Group on systemic racism and police brutality, a landmark effort to deal with the deeply rooted legacy of racism around the world.

In the past few days, the draft resolution has faced considerable pushback from states – many of them former colonial powers – seeking to undermine the effort to establish a group of experts to examine discriminatory police practices and the root causes of structural racism. The examination would cover racism against Africans and people of African descent, including the legacies of enslavement, colonialism, and the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans.  

The resolution is a follow-up to last year’s urgent debate at the Human Rights Council, triggered by the brutal police killing of George Floyd in the United States, which sparked global protests for racial justice. Last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet set out a “transformative agenda” to tackle structural racism. Its focus on root causes stems from the recognition that police killings, racial profiling, and other human rights violations against people of African descent will continue until states meaningfully grapple with legacies that continue to shape racially discriminatory laws, policies, and practices today.

The high commissioner noted that systemic racism is so deeply entrenched in many countries that it permeates all spheres of life, from police encounters to health, education, employment, and housing. Systemic racism will not be dismantled overnight, and results from historical harms that often go unacknowledged and unredressed. States whose histories and contemporary struggles are so deeply intertwined with these harmful legacies should play a decisive role in tackling these issues head on, including by addressing racism in their own countries as well as abroad, rather than seeking to frustrate efforts to do so at the Human Rights Council.

Noting that there is an “unprecedented opportunity for change,” the high commissioner is calling on states to “stop denying and start dismantling” systemic racism by pursuing “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” reforms. States should not respond to this call for urgent and transformative change with a business-as-usual approach. It is crucial that states at the Human Rights Council seize this opportunity and heed the calls for transformative change that echoed around the world.

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