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43rd session of the Human Rights Council Urgent Debate on current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests

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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 17 June 2020

Distinguished President,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis last month, a wave of massive protests has surged forward – not only across every state in the United States, but also in dozens of countries in Europe and all around the world.

That act of gratuitous brutality has come to symbolise the systemic racism that harms millions of people of African descent – causing pervasive, daily, life-long, generational and too often, lethal harm.

It has become emblematic of the excessive use of disproportionate force by law enforcement – against people of African descent, against people of colour, and against indigenous peoples, and racial and ethnic minorities, in many countries across the globe.

It has brought to a head the outrage of people who feel they are neither adequately served, nor adequately heard, by their governments.

It has brought to their feet millions of allies – people who are now beginning to acknowledge the reality of systemic discrimination suffered by others, and to join their demand that every person in their countries be treated with equality, fairness and respect.

Today's protests are the culmination of many generations of pain, and long struggles for equality. Too little has changed, over too many years. We owe it to those who have gone before, as well as those to come, to seize the moment – at long last – to demand fundamental change and insist upon it.

As 20 of my fellow senior UN leaders, each of African origin or descent, jointly wrote this week, "to merely condemn expressions and acts of racism is not enough. We must go beyond and do more."

The scale of today's protests, and evidence of a transcending breadth of public support, point towards a sea-change in nations whose history has been intertwined with the twin evils of slavery and racism – and which, despite the exemplary struggle of the civil rights movement, have never fully acknowledged their harm or eradicated their influence.

As General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged last week: "(George Floyd's) death amplified the pain, the frustration, the fear that so many of our fellow Americans live with day in and day out....The protests that have ensued speak not only to his killing, but to the centuries of injustice toward African Americans."

Now we need decisive action across the world – not only to reform or re-imagine specific institutions and law enforcement agencies, important though that is, but to address the pervasive racism that corrodes institutions of government, entrenches inequality and underlies so many violations of human rights. And the cycles of impunity which have permitted this to happen must end.

From poor health-care to inadequate education, limited job advancement, refusals of housing and mortgage loans, ill-treatment by officials, practical restrictions on the right to vote and over-incarceration in prisons, racial discrimination produces overwhelming harm to millions of people.

I have been heartened to see some first measures now being taken by national and local authorities to implement reforms of practices related to policing that are long overdue. They include banning of chokeholds by police; rulings that prohibit the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades against peaceful protestors; limitations on provision of military-grade weaponry to police forces; and – perhaps most vital of all – measures to better ensure both prompt and effective accountability and prosecution for misconduct by security forces.

Many are now also questioning the pervasive role of policing in some societies, where police are called upon to act as crisis managers, counselors, social workers and much besides – in part because of budget cuts to those public services essential to the common good. Concerns such as these are leading to more fundamental questions about whether we need to reconstruct from the ground up, rather than just reform in piecemeal fashion, the approaches to policing in our societies.

It is in the interest of every law enforcement officer to be held to a high and honourable standard. Whether or not they are filmed and go viral on social media, acts of misconduct by police personnel should be met with immediate investigation, sanction or prosecution, based on international standards. Clear guidance, such as the Human Rights Guidelines on the Use of Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement issued by my Office last year, can be of assistance here.

This accountability is also in the interest of every State. The rights, dignity and equality of all are vital principles in themselves, and crucial to the resilience and success of every society.

I am disturbed by the criminal acts undertaken by a small number of people amid the many peaceful protests around the world, which have often harmed property of racial and ethnic minorities in acts of fresh victimization. Video evidence has also shown excessive use of force against protestors by police, including during entirely peaceful protests. All these incidents should be investigated and those responsible should be brought to justice.

Excellencies,

Systemic racial discrimination extends beyond any expression of individual hatred. It results from bias in multiple systems and institutions of public policy, which separately and together perpetuate and reinforce barriers to equality.

We need schools and universities that are free of bias; economies that give truly equal opportunities and fair treatment to all; political institutions that are more responsive and inclusive; justice systems which are truly just.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination, and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, are internationally agreed commitments to prohibit and combat racial discrimination in all spheres of civil and political, economic, social and cultural life. They commit States to take targeted steps – in law, in policy and in practice – to ensure full and equal rights to those who have faced discrimination in the past and today.

The International Decade for People of African Descent, which is approaching its mid-term review by the General Assembly, provides an important framework for taking action on structural issues of access to justice, racial profiling, recognition of people of African descent and the deep-seated economic and development deficits which affect them.

My Office counts on reinvigorated support and action from States to accelerate these and other commitments to advance the human rights of people of African descent everywhere in laws, policies and programmes. It is especially important that people of African descent participate in shaping these decisions.

Behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism, and discriminatory policing lies the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism. To build a more solid foundation for equality we need to better understand the scope of systemic discrimination, with disaggregated data by ethnicity or race. Recently, when I met the Working Group on People of African Descent, they said to me, "in many countries they don't count us - and if they don't count us, we don't count". We also need to make amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms.

I encourage this Council to heighten its focus on issues involving racism and racial discrimination and by giving more prominence to the important work of the intergovernmental and expert mechanisms that address this issue. Specific and results-oriented recommendations, together with strong advocacy, should assist States to improve the visibility of national actions.

In all of these measures, we should go beyond existing recommendations. We need to build on what has worked, from the enormous body of work and experience we already have. Time is of the essence. Patience has run out.

Black lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. The lives of people of colour matter. All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights: that is what this Council, like my Office, stands for.

I thank the African Group of States for initiating this debate, and this Council for holding it. I trust it will be followed by swift and decisive reforms.

Thank you.