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UN human rights chief: ‘systemic racism needs a systemic response’

People gather in New York for a rally ahead of the start of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, March 8. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Justin Lane)

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called on countries to combat police brutality and tackle “systemic racism” within law enforcement and judicial authorities.

Addressing the Human Rights Council on Friday, Bachelet said racial discrimination and violence by police, specifically against people of African descent, was prevalent in countries across the world, but often went unpunished.

“Currently, despite the heightened visibility around this issue, incidents of police brutality and racial discrimination against people of African descent continue to occur,” she said. “It is imperative to end police violence.”

The high commissioner was updating the council on the implementation of a resolution on systemic racism which was adopted after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, following a special session of the Geneva body convened a month later.

Bachelet noted that, while the opening of the trial of Derek Chauvin - the former police officer charged with Mr Floyd’s murder - last week provided an opportunity for justice, many victims of police brutality were denied that chance. Having conducted many consultations with family members of victims of police brutality in recent months, she said she was struck by the similar difficulties reported in their interactions with police and judicial authorities.

“Many of the families we consulted clearly felt their governments are not doing enough to acknowledge or counter systemic racism in law enforcement and justice – and that officials responsible for human rights violations are not being held to account,” she said.

“I want to be very clear: impunity for crimes that may have been committed by agents of the state is profoundly damaging to the core values and social cohesion of every nation,” she added. “No police officer or any other agent of any state should ever be above the law. This is, after all, the basic premise of the rule of law.”

However, Bachelet warned that issues of racism and violence within the police could not be tackled until countries addressed wider prejudices and inequalities “within all our institutions”.

“Impunity for violence by police and other law enforcement officials against people of African descent does not exist in a vacuum,” she said. “Systemic racism needs a systemic response. It demands a thorough look at the structures that reinforce inequality in all aspects of our lives, all of which are contributory factors in the phenomenon of police violence.”

Bachelet’s comments were welcomed by member states including the US, who delivered a statement on behalf of 150 states including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

“Combatting racism and racial discrimination means acknowledging and addressing the legacy of past transgressions, which often manifest themselves in systemic racism,” said acting US representative Lisa Peterson. ”In many cases, it means actively reviewing and revising long-standing practices and policies to ensure they treat all individuals equally.”

The resolution adopted by the council last June was criticised by many civil society organisations as a watered down version of the draft first presented to the body, falling short of focusing on systemic racism within the US specifically following immense pressure from the country and its allies. However, the US statement has been welcomed as an indication that tackling racism will come high up on the new administration's agenda.

“[The US statement] is an encouraging sign that there is a shift in the United States, at least in the federal executive branch, on prioritising the effort to combat systemic racism, but this is only the first step,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) human rights program, speaking to Geneva Solutions. The ACLU was one of the leading organisations who called for the adoption of the resolution and has been working on its implementation.

“In order for the US to play a credible role internationally, they will have to prove that they are truly committed to doing more than they have done over the past decade to address racial injustice,” added Dakwar. “We've heard too many promises over the years, and too many words, and there was too much lip service paid to human rights and I think this is their test.”

The high commissioner is due to deliver her full report on systemic racism to the council during its session in June, which many civil society groups and activists hope will usher in a new prioritisation of the issue of racism on the United Nations’ agenda.

“We hope that the report will provide the beginning, not the end, of the process where there will be continuing engagement and prioritising of this issue at the highest level of the United Nations, and create a permanent follow up that will include effective accountability mechanisms,” said Dakwar.