On 12 July 2021, during its 47th Session, the Human Rights Council discussed the groundbreaking report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on systemic racism and violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent. The High Commissioner stated that the pervasiveness of systemic racism manifests in marginalisation, unequal distribution of power, and the lack of representation in decision making of Africans and people of African descent.
The three key contexts of lethal law enforcement action against Africans and people of African descent are: (1) policing of minor offences/traffic stops/stop and search; (2) the war on drugs; and (3) police responding to mental health crises. The High Commissioner emphasised that every State must deal with the lack of accountability for violations of human rights committed by law enforcement officials against Africans and people of African descent. Importantly, the report of the High Commissioner, to be read in conjunction with an accompanying conference room paper, presents an agenda for transformative change for racial justice and equality with recommendations for interconnected pillars of action. It calls on the Council to establish a specific time-bound mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement.
Many States welcomed the High Commissioner’s proposed four-point plan of action, which calls on States to:
- Step up and stop denying the existence of racism and start dismantling it;
- Pursue justice by ending impunity and building trust;
- Listen to the people of African descent who stand up against racism and ensure that their concerns are acted upon; and
- Confront legacies of slavery and colonialism including through accountability and redress.
In its statement to the Council, ISHR – together with Sexual Rights Initiative and Minority Rights Group – welcomed the report and its mention of the death of Adama Traoré in France at the hands of police but regretted that, despite the information submitted, Switzerland was not named as a country also plagued by racist police violence. ISHR also regretted that despite France being a member of the Human Rights Council, it allows the culture of impunity to persist. For instance, after half a decade of judicial proceedings, Adama Traoré’s family is still waiting for a trial of the police officers implicated in his death. Delays and repeated dismissal of cases continue to prevail when it comes to police violence in France. Watch ISHR’s statement here.
ISHR, as part of a broad civil society coalition, called on the Council, throughout its 47th session, to adopt a resolution that ensures effective accountability and follow-up to HRC Resolution 43/1 on systemic racism and police violence against Africans and people of African descent in the United States and globally. On 13 July 2021, the Council adopted the historic consensus resolution 47/21 which establishes an international independent expert mechanism for a period of three years. The mechanism, which will comprise three experts with law enforcement and human rights expertise, is mandated to pursue transformative change for racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement globally. It is tasked to consider the legacies of colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade in enslaved Africans, to investigate governments’ responses to peaceful anti-racism protests and all violations of international human rights law and to contribute to accountability and redress for victims. In addition, the resolution mandated annual reporting of the High Commissioner on systemic racism, violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, and to contribute to accountability and redress. Starting from the HRC’s fifty–first session (September/October 2022), the new expert mechanism and the High Commissioner will present their written annual reports to the Council followed by a debate that prioritises the participation of directly affected individuals and communities.
Key takeaways from the Council’s discussion
The High Commissioner addressed the need for a human rights-based approach and encouraged States to initiate a human rights audit exercise focusing on the systemic nature of racism and how it manifests in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. She also emphasised the need to ensure the representation of people of African descent at all levels in shaping decisions that affect them. She further urged States to respond to hate speech with the full force of law, call out perpetrators and hold them accountable. Lastly, she encouraged States to engage with her four-point action plan and take advantage of the opportunities presented by the upcoming commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), and the mid-term review of the International Decade for People of African Descent.
During the debate, most States expressed support for the report and some called out discrimination in other States, in particular in Western countries, while others recommended actions. For instance, Palestine and the Organisation of American States called for accountability and reparations for colonialism and slave trade. Most States acknowledged that incidents of racism and discrimination seem to have been escalating, especially since COVID-19. Many States and NGOs expressed concern over the lack of implementation of the DDPA. Equally, concerns were expressed over racism in law enforcement. To curb this, some States such as Indonesia and Costa Rica called for the training of police forces in human rights to improve law enforcement.
The EU argued that there is a need for an intersectional approach to uprooting systemic racism. Some UN bodies such as UNICEF, UNFPA, and UN Women exposed the intersectionality of this matter and its connection to children, race and gender and women, especially women of African descent. UN Women reiterated that the DDPA calls for specific measures to be taken to address this intersection. International Harm Reduction Association linked systemic racism to the war on drugs and stated that “we cannot dismantle racism without dismantling the war on drugs.” Further, the Associação Brasileira de Gays Lésbicas e Transgêneros argued that the LGBT+ community is disproportionately affected by racism and called for protective measures to be made by States.
Background: The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 and the ensuing worldwide mass protests marked a turning point in the fight against racism. In June 2020, more than 660 human rights organisations from around the world, led by the families of victims of police killings in the US, called on UN member States to adopt a resolution to establish an independent international commission of inquiry related to the systemic racism, human rights violations and other abuses against Africans and People of African Descent in the United States and around the world. The Council held an urgent debate in June 2020 on “racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests” which led to the adoption by consensus of HRC resolution 43/1. Resolution 43/1 mandated the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report on systemic racism and violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies that would contribute to accountability and redress for victims.