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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
46th session of the Human Rights Council
19 March 2021
Thank you for this opportunity to discuss our work to implement Resolution 43/1, which mandates us to look at systemic racism and human rights violations by law enforcement agencies against Africans and people of African descent, to contribute to accountability and redress for victims.
In implementing this mandate, broad consultations have been held – listening above all to the experiences of people of African descent, particularly victims and their families, as well as other stakeholders, from a range of sectors and countries.
Last week, I met personally with a number of family members of women, men and children of African descent killed by law enforcement officials.
I was deeply moved by their courage and their descriptions of the impact and ongoing trauma of losing their child or sibling so suddenly and violently.
And I was struck by the similar difficulties reported in their interactions with police and judicial authorities in their struggles to achieve justice.
While some of the cases are still ongoing, this distrust in the system, and reported refusal by the authorities to objectively investigate the full circumstances of killings where race is an element, was a common feature of their experience.
Ten months after the killing of George Floyd set off new waves of outrage and demands for change across the world, a key trial related to his killing is now beginning.
But this crucial, defining opportunity for justice is denied to countless other families. So many cases involving deaths of people of African descent never make it to court, and the pain of so many families goes unacknowledged or even denied.
Many of the families we consulted clearly felt their governments are not doing enough to acknowledge or counter systemic racism in law enforcement and justice – and that officials responsible for human rights violations are not being held to account.
I am deeply concerned at the extent of the challenges that families report in their pursuit of truth and justice. They are confronted with lengthy processes and delays, and often receive little or no legal aid or financial and psychological support.
Many have told us of being refused access to evidence, denied timely and regular information, and even permission to recover the bodies of their relatives.
They describe being ignored and treated with contempt, their concerns dismissed, leaving them feeling unheard, unvalued, and dehumanized.
Some family members and victims have also shared with us serious allegations of intimidation and harassment – as well as disturbing allegations that evidence was planted, and perjury committed, to prevent law enforcement personnel from being held to justice.
I want to be very clear: impunity for crimes that may have been committed by agents of the State is profoundly damaging to the core values and social cohesion of every nation. No police officer or any other agent of any State should ever be above the law. This is, after all, the basic premise of the rule of law.
Currently, despite the heightened visibility around this issue, incidents of police brutality and racial discrimination against people of African descent continue to occur. It is imperative to end police violence.
However, we will not succeed in this endeavour until we realize that impunity for violence by police and other law enforcement officials against people of African descent does not exist in a vacuum; that law enforcement and judicial authorities are a reflection of our societies; and that unless we address the systemic racism within all our institutions, we can never “fix” the police alone.
Systemic racism needs a systemic response. It demands a thorough look at the structures that reinforce inequality in all aspects of our lives, all of which are contributory factors in the phenomenon on police violence. Discrimination in housing that has created segregated neighborhoods; discrimination in education that for generations has deprived children of equal opportunities to flourish; discrimination in employment that has fueled cycles of insecurity and poverty; and discrimination in healthcare that has impaired and shortened lives.
To end racial injustice in law enforcement, we cannot simply see the tip of the iceberg, we must face the mass below the surface. We must understand the roots of today’s inequalities and the unacknowledged and unredressed racism upon which they have grown.
We must address the legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and its context of colonialism. We must acknowledge centuries of racially discriminatory policies and systems that followed the formal abolition of slavery. We must commit ourselves to transformative action that with a long look backwards will allow us to take a giant leap forward.
I applaud recent announcement of political commitments, as well as local and national initiatives to work towards racial justice. These are important steps. But they can only have real impact when they are part of broad and sustained actions which place people of African descent at the centre.
In adopting resolution 43/1, the Council took an important first step in responding to these long standing issues. Working with States and people of African descent and other affected communities to achieve racial justice, as the Secretary-General has pointed out, is key to the core values of the UN and a priority for my Office. Addressing systemic racism should also continue to be a priority for this Council.
My report to the Council in June will recommend an agenda for transformative change to dismantle systemic racism and police brutality against Africans and people of African descent, and to advance accountability and redress for victims.
It will also analyse Government responses to recent, overwhelmingly peaceful, demonstrations for racial justice – including credible reports of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officers against protesters, bystanders and journalists, and broader threats to people of African descent and others who stand up against racism.
I thank all those who have shared their experiences and guidance with my Office, including victims and families; the Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent; the Special Rapporteur on Racism; and some 300 academics, practitioners, civil society activists, members of national human rights institutions, and other national, regional and international experts with extensive experience on systemic racism, law enforcement, accountability and redress.
I also thank Member States and other stakeholders for the more than 100 valuable submissions that we have received.
Thank you, Mr. Vice-President.