Statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,
The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Freedom of Assembly and Association, and the Coordination Committee of the UN Human Rights Special Procedures
Geneva, 17 June 2020
It is a privilege to participate in this historic debate, and I deliver this statement in my own capacity as Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, and on behalf of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. This statement is also joined by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Freedom of Assembly and Association, and the Coordination Committee of the UN Human Rights Special Procedures.
The world is witnessing the largest transnational mobilization against systemic racism in law enforcement, sparked by the chilling images of the police killing of George Floyd. On, May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a police officer in Minnesota knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. While Mr. Floyd called out for help, two other officers helped hold him down, and another prevented bystanders from intervening. This unjust and discriminatory killing is only one of countless others. In the United States, there can be no question that the problem is not one of isolated incidents of police misconduct, but rather it is one of systemic racism in law enforcement. Furthermore, it is a situation that requires urgent and decisive action by the Human Rights Council.
Among our jobs as independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council, is to sound the alarm in the face of grave human rights violations, and the situation in the United States has prompted us to do so. We refer you to the statement led by my mandate and joined by 47 Special Procedures mandate holders, which calls attention to the ongoing national uprising in the United States against systemic racism in law enforcement. That statement voices serious concern with the response of the President of the United States, which has included threatening more state violence. We refer you to the statement led by the Working Group of Experts on People of African descent, and joined by other Special Procedures that condemns what amounts to modern-day racial terror lynchings in the United States. We also refer you to recent Special Procedures statements led by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression condemning militarization of the police, and the violent crackdown against peaceful protesters and journalists, in the United States, which has included law enforcement firing tear gas into peaceful crowds.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has issued a statement under its Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures, among other things: expressing alarm at the killing of George Floyd and the recurrence of and impunity for police killings of people of African descent in the United States; expressing concern for continuing practices of racial profiling, and police brutality against racial and ethnic minorities; and expressing concern for the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against peaceful anti-racism protestors in the United States. CERD puts these events in context, noting that in the United States:
systemic and structural discrimination permeates State institutions and disproportionately promotes racial disparities against African Americans, notably in the enjoyment of the rights to equal treatment before the tribunals, security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm, and other civil, economic, social and cultural rights enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Indeed, the family members of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile and Michael Brown have joined hundreds of human rights organizations in requesting a commission of inquiry for the situation in the United States.
The predominant analysis in the United States is that the problem is not limited to specific enforcement practices or individual officers, but extends to the very framework of law and policy that governs law enforcement, including transparency and accountability for human rights violations by law enforcement officials. Nevertheless, the predominant messaging from the President of the United States and his administration has been to deny the existence of systemic racism in law enforcement. Instead, he has inflamed national tensions through racialized divisive rhetoric and calls on public authorities to deploy force against protestors. As we and our colleagues within Special Procedures have highlighted in our recent statements: the response of the US government to the national uprising against systemic racism in law enforcement has reenacted the very injustices that have driven people into the streets in the first place.
For people of African descent in the United States, the domestic legal system has utterly failed to acknowledge and confront racial injustice and discrimination. This injustice and discrimination is so deeply entrenched in law enforcement that even during this period of uprising, reports continue of extrajudicial killings of Black people by the police. This injustice and discrimination also affects other racial and ethnic minorities. Despite several decades of policing reform, executive intervention, and judicial oversight, this violence and racial injustice persists. The death of Rayshard Brooks—a Black man who was killed by police in Atlanta after he fell asleep in is car in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant last week—is but one example.
An important purpose of the UN human rights system and its international mechanisms is to ensure that, where national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect human rights, those subject to violations have some means of recourse. The situation in the United States requires an international response that can help ensure that people of African descent in that country are no longer subject to the routine but egregious violations that prompted this Urgent Debate in the first place. It is for this reason that any resolution adopted by the Council at the conclusion of this debate must provide for an international commission of inquiry with the necessary authority to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States. Failure to do so would be to deny people of African descent in the United States the opportunity to draw on the global human rights system to challenge entrenched racial injustice. Failure to establish an international commission of inquiry would signal that Black lives do not matter, or that if they do, they do not matter enough to mobilize the Human Rights Council to intervene where it should. People of all racial and ethnic groups have been taking to the streets, risking their lives day after day to protest systemic racism in the face of global health pandemic.
Equally important, the wide-spread and transnational nature of the protests we are seeing, speak to the fact that systemic racism in law enforcement is also of urgent global concern. The massive transnational public outcry, including mobilization of people all over the world, reflects their parallel—if not identical—local concerns with systemic racism in law enforcement, racial profiling, and police violence against people of African descent in their own communities. As Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and as the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, we have found a common, transnational thread, in countries where racial injustice in law enforcement is most rampant, relating to failures to undo structures of racism originating in colonialism and the transatlantic enslavement of and trade in people. For example, the trafficking of enslaved Africans, and the maintenance of institutions of enslavement and colonialism globally, relied heavily on slave patrols and other legalized interventions that licensed control and brutalization of Black bodies. In many countries, modern-day law enforcement implicitly (and in some cases explicitly) grew from these models and their legacies remains evident globally. Systemic racism in law enforcement requires thematic engagement by the Council—for this reason we strongly urge you to create a thematic commission of inquiry or other mechanism empowered to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement globally, especially where it is related to legacies of colonialism and transatlantic slavery.
We believe the situation in the United States warrants urgent country-specific intervention, and that a thematic global investigation is also in order. One cannot substitute for the other. We also wish to caution against a course of action that would task existing Special Procedures mandates with investigating the issues that have led you to convene this debate. Both my mandate as Special Rapporteur and that of the Working Group are global, and you have tasked us with maintaining focus on the broad range of issues that arise under the umbrella of racial discrimination and intolerance. The issues before you today—systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States, and in other parts of the world—cannot properly and fully be addressed if they are added to the long list of pressing responsibilities you have already assigned us. What is required here today is the creation of Commissions of Inquiry or related mechanisms with the requisite resources to actually make a difference in the lives of the millions of people in the United States and around the world who are subject to systemic racism in law enforcement.
Although our remarks have focused on systemic racism in law enforcement, we wish to highlight that the uprising in the United States and in other parts of the world are rejections of all systemic racism in all areas of life. As a result, this Urgent Debate is an important opportunity for members of the Council, the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to recommit to supporting the different mechanisms and processes within the United Nations that have been established for the purposes of challenging systemic racism.
The truth is that there has been a steady erosion within the United Nations of commitment to the anti-racism human rights framework, including to the historic commitments to combat structural forms of discrimination and intolerance made at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. We need to see concrete changes on this front. Globally, states must collect robust data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and use this data to identify racial disparities, and mitigate racial discrimination in all fields, including law enforcement. In addition, states have not heeded calls for reparations, which include the need to dismantle contemporary structures of racial injustice that are legacies of historical injustice. A reflective and reasoned discourse on the matter of reparations should form an essential part of the processes underway for finding solutions. So, too, should the programme of activities associated with the International Decade for People of African Descent, the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, and the Observatory mechanism that would allow the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights the capacity and the mandate to monitor racism, racial discrimination and intolerance.
This Urgent Debate must mark a shift, even within the United Nations, in the fight against racial injustice to ensure that racial inequality receives the attention, political will, and resources required to achieve real and meaningful protection and promotion of human rights for people of African descent, and others.
We would like to conclude where we began: what is at stake here is the lives and lived experiences of human beings who deserve fundamental human rights protections, and who should not be denied these rights on the basis of the color of their skin. Due to the time difference, I am recording this statement on June 16, 2020. On June 16, 1976 thousands of Black students in South Africa took to the streets to protest Apartheid in what we now call the Soweto Uprising. Many of you are likely familiar with the image of Hector Pieterson—one of the children shot and killed by Apartheid police during the protests.
What does it mean that almost fifty years later, in the United States people have to take to the streets daily to demand justice for Breonna Taylor? Breonna Taylor is the 26-year old Black woman who was shot and killed by police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky in March this year. Using a “no-knock” warrant, police entered her home and shot her to death. The officers involved have not been charged with any crimes, nor have they been dismissed—they are on administrative leave.
The family members of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile and Michael Brown have turned to this body for help—they have joined others in calling for an international commission of inquiry for the situation in the United States.
We are aware that some member states have argued that a Commission of Inquiry should be reserved for more serious human rights violations. We disagree. If the national and global uprisings we are witnessing are not sufficient evidence of the gravity of the issues before you, it is difficult to imagine what it would take to convince you that the situation we are faced with is very serious. It is difficult to imagine what might convince you to demonstrate the equal worth of people of African descent. The decisions this Council will take in the context of this Urgent Debate will undoubtedly find their way into the history books, and we urge you to ensure that those decisions place this body on the right side of history.
I thank you for your attention.