NEW YORK — The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights released a long-awaited report today addressing systemic racism and law enforcement violence against Black people and people of African descent.
The report calls for “transformative agenda” to uproot systemic racism and provides detailed recommendations that countries, including the United States, must take to confront and dismantle systemic racism, including in policing, and provide redress and reparations for historic racial injustices.
“This historic report provides a blueprint for the United States and other countries to begin reckoning with the long history of systemic racism that permeates through policing and other state violence and structural discrimination against Black people,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. “We welcome this report and urge the Biden administration and Congress to heed the recommendations and take bold action to eliminate systemic racism in the United States, starting with our policing institutions. The United States’ global leadership on human rights and racial justice must start at home. Without tackling the root causes of systemic racism — slavery and Jim Crow — and start the process of making amends, it will continue to be seen as disingenuous and hypocritical.”
“The release of the U.N. High Commissioner’s report is not only historic, but hopefully it will be a beacon of light for other countries to unite and stand against the egregious extrajudicial killings at the hands of U.S. law enforcement; holding the United States accountable for their shameful police brutality history,” said Collette Flanagan, founder and CEO of the Mothers Against Police Brutality.
“We welcome this important report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. It provides a well respected imprimatur on what we have known — Black people continue to face systemic racism and inequality in America and around the world,” said Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “From policing to voting, economic opportunities to education, transformative changes are still needed to remedy the historic wrongs wrought by white supremacy. We urge the Biden administration, Congress, and all elected officials to act on the critical issues that affect the daily lives of Black people in America.”
“The people-centered movement for human rights accountability will not rest until justice is won, for those whose lives have for too long been deemed expendable,” said Dr. Vickie Casanaova-Willis, co-executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network. “The High Commissioner’s report provides hope to impacted communities and grassroots groups in the U.S. that the world will no longer turn a blind eye to domestic crimes against humanity. This much needed leadership can ensure that dismantling structural racism remains firmly on the agenda for the global human rights community.”
A summary of the report is below:
The High Commissioner’s report, which mentions the United States more than any other country, details the “compounding inequalities” and “stark socioeconomic and political marginalization” that afflict people of African descent in many countries, including in the United States, and create serious barriers to fundamental human rights.
The report sets out three key contexts in which police-related fatalities have occurred most frequently: the policing of minor offenses, traffic stops, and stop-and-searches; the intervention of law enforcement officials as first responders in mental health crises; and the conduct of special police operations in the context of the “war on drugs” or gang-related operations. In examining police killings in different countries with varying legal systems, the report found “striking similarities” and patterns — including in the hurdles families face in accessing justice.
The High Commissioner’s analysis of 190 deaths from around the world, including police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor demonstrated that law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable for human rights violations and crimes against people of African descent, due in part to deficient investigations, a lack of independent and robust oversight and complaint and accountability mechanisms, and a widespread “presumption of guilt” against people of African descent. With rare exceptions, investigations, prosecutions, trials, and judicial decisions fail to consider the role that racial discrimination, stereotypes, and institutional bias may have played in the deaths.
It also detailed credible and consistent reporting about differential treatment, and unnecessary and disproportionate use of force in the context of Black Lives Matter protests, notably in the United States. In that context, large numbers of protesters were arrested, the report notes, and there were numerous disparaging comments from officials against the protesters, including labelling them as “terrorists” and “sick and deranged anarchists and agitators.”
The High Commissioner’s recommendations included that the Human Rights Council either establish a specific, time-bound mechanism, or strengthen an existing mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement in all parts of the world. It identifies a “long-overdue need to confront the legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism, and to seek reparatory justice.”
While the report highlights some promising local, national, and regional initiatives to undertake truth-seeking and limited forms of reparations, including memorialization, acknowledgements, apologies, and litigation, “no state has comprehensively accounted for the past or for the current impact of systemic racism.” Instead, there remains a pervasive failure to acknowledge the existence and impact of systemic racism and its linkages with enslavement and colonialism.
The High Commissioner called upon all countries to adopt “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” reforms and responses, through adequately resourced national and regional action plans and concrete measures developed through national dialogues, with the meaningful participation and representation of people of African descent.
Families of victims of police violence and a coalition of civil society groups led by the ACLU, USHRN, and Mothers Against Police Brutality in May called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate systemic racism and violent police responses to protests in the United States. Today’s report was mandated as part of HRC Resolution 43/1, which was passed by the council last summer following the police murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial justice protest movement Floyd’s death sparked. The report will be formally presented to the Human Rights Council on July 12.
The ACLU is part of a global coalition of human rights organizations calling on the council to adopt an effective follow-up accountability mechanism to investigate structural and systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States and globally, especially where it is related to legacies of colonialism and the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans. If adopted, the U.N. mechanism will be mandated to investigate and document human rights violations and excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies including root causes of racialized policing.