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High Commissioner for Human Rights: impunity for violence by police and other law enforcement officials is a reflection of all societies and systemic racism within all institutions must be addressed

MORNING

19 March 2021

Council concludes general debate on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and starts general debate on the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action

The Human Rights Council this morning heard the oral update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on systematic racism against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, as well as the presentation of the report by the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action on its eighteenth session, then started the general debate on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, follow-up to and implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.  The Council also concluded its general debate on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. 

Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said impunity for crimes that may have been committed by agents of the State was 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 was, after all, the basic premise of the rule of law.  Stating that it was imperative to end police violence, Ms. Bachelet said the world would not succeed in this endeavour until all realised that impunity for violence by police and other law enforcement officials against people of African descent did not exist in a vacuum; that law enforcement and judicial authorities were a reflection of all societies; and that unless the systemic racism within all institutions was addressed, the police alone could not be fixed. 

Thabang Matjama, Permanent Representative of Lesotho to the United Nations Office at Geneva, presenting the report of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action on behalf of the Chairperson-Rapporteur, Refiloe Litjobo, noted that during the eighteenth session, the Working Group had, inter alia, discussed racial discrimination worldwide; reviewed the progress achieved concerning the programme of activities for the International Decade for People of African Descent; and proposed activities for the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary.  The challenges identified in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action remained, and greater political will from all was needed to achieve tangible changes.

In the ensuing debate, speakers emphasised that the root causes of racism must be addressed, and positive political messages aimed at recognising the mistakes of the past must be part of a comprehensive approach.  Actively reviewing and revising long-standing policies and practices, notably to address barriers to political participation, was essential as part of this process.  Speakers expressed their commitment to working within the framework of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.  Historically constituted challenges still persisted, and new challenges had arisen in this matter, such as the case of discrimination associated with algorithms and artificial intelligence.

Speaking were Sweden on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries, Portugal on behalf of the European Union, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference, Cameroon on behalf of the Group of African States, Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, Libya on behalf of the Group of Arab States, Brazil on behalf of a group of countries, and United States on behalf of a group of countries.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded the general debate on the follow-up to and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

In the general debate, speakers expressed their support for the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, noting that at the same time, xenophobia, racism, discrimination and intolerance were perpetuated as part of the political agenda of some States, leading to selectivity, politicisation and interference in the work of the Council.  The most serious threats to the right to life and peace posed by unilateral coercive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic were being ignored - these double standards must stop.  Other speakers reiterated that States could not hide their human rights violations under the pretence of sovereignty. 

Speaking were Sudan, Cuba, Israel on behalf of a group of countries, Russian Federation, Bahrain, Israel, Sweden, Iran, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Syria, Georgia, Tunisia, United States, Australia and Malawi.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Action Canada for Population and Development; China Soong Ching Ling Foundation; Next Century Foundation; Federation for Women and Family Planning; Chinese Association for International Understanding; Asociacion HazteOir.org; International Humanist and Ethical Union; Alsalam Foundation; Zero Poor in Africa; European Centre for Law and Justice, Centre Europeen pour le droit, les Justice et les droits de l'homme; Conectas Direitos Humanos; Institute for NGO Research; Association Internationale pour l'égalité des femmes; Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd; International Human Rights Association of American Minorities; Synergie Feminine Pour La Paix Et Le Developpement Durable; International Action for Peace & Sustainable Development; International Federation for the Protection of the Rights of Ethnic, Religious, Linguistic and Other Minorities; Khiam Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture; Global Institute for Water, Environment and Health; Commission africaine des promoteurs de la santé et des droits de l'homme; United Villages; World Muslim Congress; Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain Inc; Community Human Rights and Advocacy Centre; International Institute for Rights and Development Geneva; Ingenieurs du Monde; Geo Expertise Association; ABC Tamil Oli; iuventum e.V.; Sikh Human Rights Group; Association Thendral; Association Bharathi Centre Culturel Franco-Tamoul; Tourner La Page; Association Culturelle des Tamouls en France; Society for Development and Community Empowerment; World Barua Organization (WBO); Sociedade Maranhense de Direitos Humanos; Liberation; Integrated Youth Empowerment - Common Initiative Group; Organisation internationale pour les pays les moins avancés; Global Welfare Association; Centre for Africa Development and Progress; Association des étudiants tamouls de France; Alliance Creative Community Project; and Le Pont.

Armenia, Morocco, Brazil, China, Azerbaijan, Algeria and Ukraine spoke in right of reply at the end of the consideration of the agenda item on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here.  All meeting summaries can be found here.  Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here

The Human Rights Council will next meet at 3 p.m. to continue the general debate under agenda item 9 on the follow-up to and implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, followed by the opening of agenda item 10 on technical assistance and capacity building, with the enhanced interactive dialogue on the oral updates by the High Commissioner and the team of international experts on the situation of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

General Debate on the Follow-up to and Implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action

The general debate on the follow-up to and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Speakers expressed their support for the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and regretted that xenophobia, racism, discrimination and intolerance were perpetuated as part of the political agenda of some States, leading to selectivity, politicisation and interference in the work of the Council.  The most serious threats to the right to life and peace posed by unilateral coercive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic were being ignored - these double standards must stop.  Other speakers reiterated that States could not hide their human rights violations under the pretence of sovereignty.  The debt burden on developing countries had been exacerbated by the pandemic, as speakers called for debt relief measures, including debt cancelation.  The prevalence of sexual harassment was alarming to speakers - even Geneva-based organizations and the United Nations system were not immune from this.  Stigma, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity persisted.  Rather than being protected by the law, consensual same-gender relationships were criminalised in almost 70 States, and some States continued to apply the death penalty for such relationships - this was utterly unacceptable, as speakers reiterated: “Love is not a crime.  Love is love.”

Speakers regretted obscene displays of vaccine nationalism, so-called vaccine diplomacy, and the defence of intellectual property regimes, which were laying bare the collusion between rich States and pharmaceutical corporations.  While noting important advances for the participation of civil society in the work of the Council, including video statements, speakers said measures such as removing public access for online informal negotiations limited access and favoured those in Geneva.  Speakers highlighted the call for the elimination of violence against women in the Vienna Declaration, and drew attention to the situation of women affected by war, notably those who were detained.  The right to physical integrity should be cited more often, and the precautionary principle could help address violations caused by man-made disasters.  The Council should request the lifting of patents on the emergency production of COVID-19 vaccines as called for by over 100 States and the Director-General of the World Health Organization.  The Vienna Programme of Action should include a civil society participation audit, speakers said, urging the Council to uphold the right to self-determination by addressing the root causes of situations where it was violated.

General Debate on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance, Follow-Up to and Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action A/HRC/46/66 on its eighteenth session.

Presentation of Report

THABANG MATJAMA, Permanent Representative of Lesotho to the United Nations Office at Geneva, presenting the report of the intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action on behalf of the Chairperson-Rapporteur, REFILOE LITJOBO, noted that during the eighteenth session, the Working Group, inter alia, discussed racial discrimination worldwide; reviewed the progress achieved concerning the programme of activities for the International Decade for People of African Descent; and proposed activities for the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary.  States noted with concern that the lack of public knowledge about the Durban Declaration and the Programme of Action constituted a serious obstacle towards generating political will for its full and effective implementation.  Concern was also expressed regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected individuals and groups facing racism, and that the pandemic had highlighted and exposed underlying structural inequalities.  The design and use of emerging digital technologies could exacerbate and compound existing inequalities - digital transformations must work for the benefit of all people.  The challenges identified in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action remained, and greater political will from all was needed to achieve tangible changes.

Oral Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Systemic Racism

MICHELLE BACHELET, High Commissioner for Human Rights, noting that she had personally met with a number of family members of women, men and children of African descent killed by law enforcement officials, said she had been 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 she was struck by the similar difficulties reported in their interactions with police and judicial authorities in their struggles to achieve justice.  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 was now beginning.  But this crucial, defining opportunity for justice was denied to countless other families.  So many cases involving deaths of people of African descent never made it to court, and the pain of so many families went unacknowledged or even denied.

Impunity for crimes that may have been committed by agents of the State was 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 was, after all, the basic premise of the rule of law.  Stating that it was imperative to end police violence, Ms. Bachelet said the world would not succeed in this endeavour until all realised that impunity for violence by police and other law enforcement officials against people of African descent did not exist in a vacuum; that law enforcement and judicial authorities were a reflection of societies; and that unless the systemic racism within all institutions was addressed, the police alone could not be fixed.  Systemic racism needed a systemic response.  To end racial injustice in law enforcement, seeing the tip of the iceberg was not sufficient, the mass below the surface must be faced.  The roots of today’s inequalities and the unacknowledged and unredressed racism upon which they had grown must be understood.  Legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and its context of colonialism must be addressed.  Centuries of racially discriminatory policies and systems that followed the formal abolition of slavery must be acknowledged. 

General Debate on Racism and Racial Discrimination

Speakers expressed concern that racism and discrimination continued to thrive across the world, in every strata of every society, growing ever more intense as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had also exposed the existing deep seated structural and systemic inequalities.  Last year’s incidents of racially motivated violence and the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the police force had made this persistence clear.  Speakers called on all States to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  Calling for an end to incitement to violence through the denigration of revered religious personalities, speakers registered their deep concerns over rising Islamophobia and the bans on facial veils in some countries.  It was concerning that the general public was not fully aware of the contents of the Durban Declaration, as speakers called for intensifying outreach and advocacy programmes as well as media and awareness campaigns.  Speakers condemned the glorification of the Nazi past and the rising of neo-Nazi movements - new information and communication technologies must be used to create educational and awareness resources to combat them.  The treatment of Arab and Muslim communities and immigrants was shocking despite the contributions they made to the societies in which they lived. 

Speakers emphasised that root causes of racism must be addressed, and positive political messages aimed at recognising the mistakes of the past must be part of a comprehensive approach.  Actively reviewing and revising long-standing policies and practices, notably to address barriers to political participation, was essential as part of this process.  Speakers expressed their commitment to working within the framework of the Durban Declaration and the Programme of Action.  Historically constituted challenges still persisted, and new challenges had arisen in this matter, such as the case of discrimination associated with algorithms and artificial intelligence.  The fight against racism could only be achieved through strong government leadership in close cooperation with all relevant stakeholders, including civil society.

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For use of the information media; not an official record