UN calls for urgent action and reparations over racism

People march through the streets of Atlanta after the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of three counts in the death of George Floyd, April 2021. (AP Photo / Ben Gray)

The UN human rights chief urged countries on Monday to take a “wide range of reparation measures” to address the legacies of slavery, racial discrimination and colonial rule and fund “comprehensive processes” to establish the impact of racism today.

Michelle Bachelet presented her landmark report on systemic racism to the Human Rights Council, which was released last month. The long-awaited report was launched in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the United States in May last year with the aim of intensifying scrutiny into racism and its impact on people of African descent worldwide.

The council commissioned the report during a special session held last year following the killing of Floyd, a Black American, by a white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. As well as reparations, the report recommends the creation of a body to scrutinize and monitor law enforcement, as well as sweeping changes to policing worldwide.

“The status quo is untenable,” Bachelet said in a statement to the council when the report was released in June. “Systemic racism needs a systemic response. There is today a momentous opportunity to achieve a turning point for racial equality and justice.”

The report, which has been a year in the making, drew on evidence and research from 60 countries and analysed seven specific cases in the United States, including the killing of Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Colombia and France. Out of the seven, Floyd’s death was the only case that resulted in the police being held accountable, with his killer Chauvin sentenced to over 22 years in prison just days before the report was released.

Alongside these specific cases, the report highlighted the deaths of 190 people of African descent at the hands of law-enforcement personnel, almost all of whom were in the United States.

Racism's legacy. Bachelet told the Geneva forum on Monday that throughout a year of research undertaken for the report, UN experts could not find “a single example of a state that has comprehensively reckoned with its past or accounted for its impacts on the lives of people of African descent today. ”

The UN human rights office conducted interviews with over 340 people and received more than 100 written submissions from civil society and academic organizations. It also analyzed barriers faced by people of African descent to education, health care, jobs and political participation, highlighting similarities in countries across Europe, Latin America and North America.

In her presentation to the council, Bachelet said countries should “create, reinforce and fully fund comprehensive processes –- with full participation of affected communities - to share the truth about what was done, and the harms it continues to inflict.”

“Establishing the truth about these legacies, and their impact today, and taking steps to address this harm through a wide range of reparations measures is crucial to healing our societies and providing justice for terrible crimes,” Bachelet said. “Measures taken to address the past will transform our future.”

US deputy ambassador Benjamin Moeling praised the report as “insightful and forthright” in a video statement, and said that the US is addressing “these challenges at home and abroad, honestly and transparently by tackling the underlying issues of racial discrimination and the use of excessive force in policing. ”