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Demonstrator holds image of George Floyd

A man reacts after learning the sentencing of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin outside the Hennepin County Government Center on June 25, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images) 

UN Calls on Nations to End 'Untenable' Status Quo of Systemic Racism

A report commissioned after the killing of George Floyd pointed to the "impunity" with which police violate the human rights of people of African descent all over the world.

Julia Conley

In a report that was commissioned following the police killing of George Floyd and released Monday, United Nations human rights officials said the "impunity" of police officers all over the world has led to persistent discrimination against Black people in the criminal justice system—noting that policymakers must confront "the interconnected areas that drive racism and lead to repeated, wholly avoidable tragedies."

"We need a transformative approach," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. "I am calling on all states to stop denying, and start dismantling, racism."

Officials began working on the study (pdf) a year ago as racial justice protests spread from Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin, to the rest of the United States and dozens of other countries. 

"People of African descent face interconnected and compounded forms of racial discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion that are shaped by historical legacies and mutually reinforced through cycles of structural inequalities that have lasted for generations." —U.N. OHCHR

Floyd's killing was one of seven in-depth case studies the experts included in the report, which discussed a total of 190 police killings. Most of the incidents took place in the U.S., but the case studies also included the deaths of Luana Barbosa dos Reis Santos and João Pedro Matos Pinto in Brazil; Kevin Clarke in the U.K.; Janner García Palomino in Colombia; and Adama Traoré in France.

The report comes days after Chauvin was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison for the killing of Floyd, but accountability was found to be a rarity in cases of Black people's human rights being violated around the world.

"With the exception of the case of George Floyd, no one was held accountable," Mona Rishmawi, chief of the Rule of Law, Equality and Non-Discrimination Branch at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told reporters.

After interviewing 340 people including human rights experts and family members of victims, the OHCHR identified three contexts underlying more than 85% of police killings all over the world: the policing of minor offenses and traffic stops, which disproportionately affect people of African descent; the use of police departments in responses to mental health crises; and the conduct of special operations forces. 

Dos Reis Santos, a 34-year-old Afro-Brazilian woman, was pursued by the police on the suspicion that she was riding a stolen motorcycle; Clarke died in police custody in South London after being restrained by police who arrived when he showed signs of a relapse of his mental illness; and Garcia Palomino was allegedly shot last year when the Colombian National Police responded to a fight between rival gangs in his neighborhood.

Human rights violations of people of African descent by police officers were what spurred the OHCHR to compile the report last year, but the officials also catalogued the "stark socioeconomic marginalization shapes the lives of people of African descent in many States and regions."

The report noted that people of African descent in Latin America were more than 2.5 times more likely to live in chronic poverty and that even in countries with small Black populations, such as Saudi Arabia, people of African descent "faced discrimination in access to housing, education, healthcare and employment, as well as societal racism."

The report also pointed to environmental racism, "racial prejudices and stereotypes by healthcare providers" and other structural barriers to obtaining adequate healthcare; and housing discrimination as examples of systemic racism that affect people of African descent around the world. 

"The submissions and consultations highlighted that people of African descent face interconnected and compounded forms of racial discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion that are shaped by historical legacies and mutually reinforced through cycles of structural inequalities that have lasted for generations," the report reads.

Rishmawi said the OHCHR "could not find a single example of a state that has fully reckoned with the past or comprehensively accounted for the impacts of the lives of people of African descent today."

"Our message, therefore, is that this situation is untenable," she said.

Regarding the police killings of Black people in the U.S, and elsewhere, Bachelet said, delivering justice "will involve reimagining policing and reforming criminal justice systems which have consistently produced discriminatory outcomes for people of African descent."

The report quotes the mother of Kevin Clarke, who told the OHCHR that in addition to changing "the perception and response to Black people by the police... we want mental health services better funded so the first point of response is not just reliant on the police"—echoing calls in the U.S., which have gained traction in the past year, to end police interventions in mental health crises and instead increase funding for community services. 

"There is an overarching need to heed the calls to reimagine policing and the criminal justice system from a human rights perspective, by supporting and implementing community-driven models that protect and serve all members of communities without discrimination," the OHCHR wrote.

To end the impunity with which police officers have killed countless people of African descent, the officials called for "effective, impartial, and timely investigations of allegations of unlawful use of force or other violations by law enforcement officials—with a specific focus on the possible role that racial discrimination may have played in the violation; imposing commensurate punishments; and providing guarantees of non-repetition."

"There is today a momentous opportunity to achieve a turning point for racial equality and justice," the OHCHR said. "Africans and people of African descent, like all human beings, are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Drawing upon international obligations and commitments, States must show stronger political will to accelerate action for racial justice and equality."


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