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12 May 2023
Unprecedented worldwide protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, United States, marked a watershed moment in the struggle against police brutality and systemic racism.
A year later, UN Human Rights issued a seminal Agenda towards transformative change for racial justice and equality that offered a way forward for States to reverse cultures of denial, dismantle systemic racism and accelerate the pace of action.
This entails, among other measures, reforming institutions, legislation, policies and practices that may be discriminatory in outcome and effect. UN Human Rights continues to urge States to adopt a systemic approach to combatting racial discrimination through the adoption of whole-of-government and whole-of-society responses that are contained in comprehensive and adequately resourced national and regional action plans and special measures for people of African descent.
Actions required for racial justice and equality have gained worldwide attention in the past few years following the deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States, 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, along with countless other people of African descent across the globe. Dominique Day, member of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, said racial justice is often misunderstood and needs to be re-defined by individuals and groups.
“Racial justice is not a target; it is a process. We have a world that is so devoted to exploitation and disposability of certain people in order to create profit and opportunity for others. Racial injustice is woven into the very fabric of our economy, of our society in every State,” she said. “Racial justice is the process of unweaving that, of unlocking these commitments to racial hierarchy that exist even without actively promoting them and giving people the opportunity to live inside their dreams, just like the White majority can.”
Seventy-five years ago, Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed the equal enjoyment for all of all human rights, without distinction of any kind, including race or colour. The first legally binding agreement that was born out of the Universal Declaration was the International Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted in 1965.
Since then, the struggle against racism has continued to be at the heart of the work of the UN human rights system. The UN Human Rights office provides extensive support to all the UN mechanisms involved in the fight against racism, and works globally with States to achieve the rights set out in the Convention and the political commitments in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.
These mechanisms include the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent that, for the past 20 years, has reported to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on the human rights situation of people of African descent globally, taken action on emblematic cases and made recommendations to address racial discrimination in all its manifestations. Another anti-racism mechanism is the newly created International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the context of Law Enforcement whose mandate is to examine the systemic racism faced by Africans and people of African descent in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including its root causes. It also makes recommendations on the concrete steps needed to ensure access to justice, accountability and redress for victims of human rights violations by law enforcement officials.
Tracie L. Keesee is a member of the Expert Mechanism. After serving for 25 years in the Denver police force and another four years as the Deputy Commissioner of training and Deputy Commissioner of Equity and Inclusion in New York’s Police Department, she retired to work closely with communities and ensure their voices and representation are centred in the co-production of public safety. She co-founded and serves as Senior Vice President of Justice Initiatives of the Center for Policing Equity, an organization that promotes police transparency and accountability.
Keesee said she observed a disconnect between what law enforcement officials in United States and human rights experts perceive to be their function and what the law enforcement system actually was created to do. Keesee said the system was made “to control Black bodies in the way in which they move throughout the world and to enforce a system of what we consider to be law enforcement in the guise of providing safety for someone or something … and they are operating as designed.”
Keesee pointed out that trying to change systems and corporate cultures from the inside can become a gargantuan undertaking. For communities and law enforcement officials to understand each other and dismantle unjust systems, she proposed finding a new common language.
“We talk about safety, but we define safety differently. You are going to have to make sure that we are not only talking about the same thing, but how we are defining it and who gets to define it,” she said. “And to do so, we are going to require folks that are impacted by those systems [to sit] at the table and define what it means for them to be safe. They want to move safely, they want to exist safely and, most of all, they want to be there.”
Since the launch of its Agenda towards transformative change for racial justice and equality, UN Human Rights has recorded piecemeal progress globally in dismantling deep-rooted systems perpetuating racial discrimination across all areas of life for people of African descent.
In a September 2022 update, UN Human Rights reported on some advances towards accountability in some of the seven emblematic cases of police-related fatalities of people of African descent, cited in its 2021 report and noted above, pointing out however, that there remains an urgent need for comprehensive approaches to dismantling deep-rooted systems perpetuating systemic racism across all areas of life, including in law enforcement. UN Human Rights further stressed that the barometer for success should be positive change in the lived experiences of people of African descent, and that States needed to listen and meaningfully involve people of African descent and take genuine steps to act upon their concerns.
In January 2023, two more men of African descent, Keenan Anderson and Tyre Nichols, died following encounters with law enforcement officials. In both cases, the Expert Mechanism stressed to the United States Government that the force used appeared to have violated international norms protecting the right to life and prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It also was not in line with standards set out under the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
Civil rights and personal injury attorney, Ben Crump, was retained by Tyre Nichols’ family in their case against the city of Memphis and police officers charged in connection with Nichols’ death. Asked what racial justice means to him, Crump said, “equal rights for everybody, wherever they exist.”
“If we are to talk about racial justice, we have to make that rhetoric reality, not just for white people, but also for Black and Brown people, and marginalized people of colour. It should be real for every human being around the globe,” he added.
Crump called “profound” the activism led by people of African descent, joined by many others around the world, following the death of George Floyd, adding that that the reactions from UN human rights mechanisms had given him a more global perspective. Crump has represented many families seeking justice for the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of law enforcement, including Floyd’s family in their case against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis law enforcement official convicted of murdering Floyd.
“Skin colour is the least determinable factor of what we can achieve in this world. If we took away the bias lens that exists in society, we would see for our children a world where they are not bound by racism, but they are bound by justice and equality. That is the hope. That is the prayer,” he said.
The Expert Mechanism recently undertook an official mission to the United States (24 April- 5 May 2023) upon the invitation of the Government. The group of experts visited six major cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City and Washington D.C.