47th session of the Human Rights Council
Introduction by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
12 July 2021
The murder of George Floyd was a tipping point, which shifted the world’s attention to the human rights violations routinely endured by Africans and people of African descent. In its subsequent urgent debate, this Council mandated a report, A/HRC/47/53 that it is my honour to present today, in conjunction with the accompanying conference room paper, A/HRC/47/CRP.1.
These two texts are anchored in lived experiences. I met and listened to family members of people of African descent killed by law enforcement officials. Online consultations with over 340 people, mostly of African descent were central to our analysis. These deep conversations, together with over 110 written submissions received from States and other stakeholders, shaped our analysis and recommendations for ways to achieve transformative change and end profound injustices, inflicted for generations.
Our report examines how systemic racism against Africans and people of African descent affects their rights in all areas of life, compounding inequalities, marginalization and deepening their unequal access to opportunities, resources and power.
This is a story that begins in early childhood. Wherever data is available, it shows that children of African descent are often subjected to racial discrimination in schools, suffer poorer educational outcomes, and at times are treated as criminals from an early age.
In some States, people of African descent are more likely to live in poverty, earn lower wages, occupy less-skilled positions, and face unequal access to adequate housing and quality health-care.
These obstacles are compounded by the insufficient participation and representation of people of African descent in decision-making and public life. Systemic racism is further heightened by intersectionality, with women of African descent, in particular, forced to endure multiple forms of discrimination.
In the area of law enforcement, the report focuses on lethal incidents where there has been a strikingly consistent failure to see justice done. It emphasises the disproportionately adverse outcomes for people of African descent who come in contact with law enforcement. And it explains how disproportionate stops – including on the basis of racial profiling -- result in disproportionate arrests and incarceration and harsher sentencing, including disproportionate imposition of the death penalty.
The Office received information about at least 190 deaths of Africans and people of African descent at the hands of law enforcement officials, 98 % of which took place in Europe, Latin America and North America. In addition, we closely examined seven emblematic incidents of deaths of Africans and people of African descent in contact with law enforcement officials, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States of America; Adama Traoré in France; Luana Barbosa dos Reis Santos and João Pedro Mattos Pinto in Brazil; Kevin Clarke in the United Kingdom; and Janner García Palomino in Colombia.
Overall, despite varying legal systems, certain practices, patterns and challenges appeared similar, including the recurrence of racial bias, stereotypes and profiling. Harmful and degrading associations of Blackness with criminality appear to shape interactions of people of African descent with law enforcement and criminal justice. Three key contexts in which police-related fatalities stood out: The policing of minor offences, traffic stops and stop-and-searches; the intervention of law enforcement officials as first responders in mental health crises; and special police operations in the context of the “war on drugs” or gang-related operations.
Many States have not put in place clear and effective laws and policies about use of force, increasing the risk of violations. Moreover, law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable for human rights violations and crimes against persons of African descent. Deficient investigations; inadequate oversight, complaint and accountability mechanisms; and widespread prejudice about the presumed underlying guilt of victims of African descent are contributing factors. Investigations, prosecutions and trials largely do not adequately consider the potential role of racial discrimination, stereotypes and biases in lethal incidents involving the police.
Our report also examines Government responses to peaceful anti-racism protests. We found credible allegations of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against some protests, and differences in how racial justice protests were policed compared with other demonstrations. The clampdown on anti-racism protests in some countries should be seen within a broader context in which the voices of people of African descent, and people combatting racism, are stifled, and human rights defenders of African descent face reprisals, including harassment, threats, criminal prosecutions, violence and killings.
In light of these profound and wide-ranging injustices, there is an urgent need to confront the legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems, and to seek reparatory justice. Despite some initiatives towards truth-seeking, and limited forms of reparations -- including memorialization, acknowledgements, apologies and litigation, our research could not find a single example of a State that has comprehensively reckoned with the past or accounted for its impacts on the lives of people of African descent today.
Our report presents to the Council practical recommendations for four interconnected pillars of action that are essential to address systemic racism.
Action One. States should acknowledge the systemic nature of racism, in every part of life, in order to transform the structures, institutions and behaviours that lead to direct or indirect discrimination. “Whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” reforms should include clear, time-bound commitments monitored by independent institutions. The collection and publication of official data disaggregated by race or ethnic origin, gender, age, and other factors is crucial.
Action Two. Law enforcement officials must be held accountable for crimes and human rights violations against Africans and people of African descent. We also need to look deeply at policing itself, and apply alternative approaches in some situations -- including in educational settings, in cases of mental health crises, in relation to migration and border management, and during protests. Policing and the criminal justice system will only regain the public’s trust if they are seen to uphold dignity and equality, and to protect and serve
all members of communities. Independent oversight and complaints procedures should be created or strengthened, and reforms should restrict the use of force, prohibit racial profiling. A striking number of families, across multiple jurisdictions, have reported to my Office unbearable difficulties in seeking truth and justice, and there is a clear need for effective, independent mechanisms to support people affected by law enforcement violations.
Action Three. States should uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and protect organizers, participants, observers and journalists during anti-racism protests, as well as those who stand up against racism outside of such protests. States should also ensure the effective participation and representation of people of African descent, in particular women and young people, at every level, including law enforcement and the criminal justice system, as well as policy-making processes.
Behind today’s systemic racism and racial violence lies the absence of formal acknowledgement of the responsibilities of States and others that engaged in or profited from enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and colonialism – as well as those who continue to profit from this legacy.
Communities, families and individuals were deprived of lives, livelihoods, resources and rights and this still continues.
The final pillar of this transformative agenda recommends that States create, reinforce and fully fund comprehensive processes – with full participation of affected communities - to share the truth about what was done, and the harms it continues to inflict. Establishing the truth about these legacies, and their impact today, and taking steps to address these harms through a wide range of reparations measures is crucial to healing our societies and providing justice for terrible crimes. Measures taken to address the past will transform our future.
I urge all States to draw upon the great body of international obligations and commitments and to demonstrate much stronger political will to accelerate action for racial justice and equality.
I thank this Council for its important initiative in mandating this report. I call on States to translate this agenda into action plans and concrete measures, which should be developed through national dialogues and with the meaningful participation of people of African descent, to address the specific histories and current realities in each State.
My Office can help support those efforts. We hope to expand our work with States and this Council to implement this agenda, including by strengthening assistance to States and other stakeholders; collaborating with victims and affected communities; and providing guidance for domestic racial justice processes.
I encourage this Council to sustain its close engagement on these issues, by establishing a specific, time-bound mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement in all parts of the world.
The time for action is now.