by Sophie Trist
Following the brutal murder of George Floyd and subsequent racial justice protests around the globe, the United Nations Office of Human Rights called on its High Commissioner to prepare a report on the following:
Violations of international human rights laws perpetrated against people of African descent
Government responses to peaceful racial justice protests
The report also included concrete actions governments could take to bolster accountability, provide redress for past injustices, and ensure that the human dignity of Black people is recognized around the world. Published in late June of 2021, the report was written in consultation with more than a dozen countries, prominent Black-led organizations, antiracism experts, and human rights groups. The report lays out the roots of anti-Black racism, as well as highlights the intergenerational trauma and loss of life Black people have suffered due to such discrimination. The publication also puts forth ways to go about systematically dismantling systemic racism rather than pursuing piecemeal efforts which produce little meaningful change.
The High Commissioner’s report links today’s multifaceted racial inequalities directly to the transatlantic slave trade and European and American colonialism. It refers to the failure to acknowledge this history’s impact on our present as a “culture of denial.” In describing how the dehumanization of Black people is inculcated in every aspect of recent history and culture, the report pulls no punches. In the High Commissioner’s words,
“Systemic racism persists in large part due to misconceptions that the abolition of slavery, the end of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and colonialism, and measures taken by states to date have removed the racially discriminatory structures built by those practices and created equal societies [...] The dehumanization of people of African descent — a practice rooted in false social constructions of race historically created to justify enslavement, pervasive racial stereotyping, and widely accepted harmful practices and traditions — has sustained and cultivated a tolerance for racial discrimination, inequality, and violence.”
The report goes on to describe how decades of enslavement and dehumanizing laws have denied Black people access to wealth, education, healthcare, physical safety, and even clean air and water. Because it was prompted by George Floyd’s murder, the UN’s report is primarily focused on human rights violations committed against Black people by law enforcement agencies. The report determined that Blackness is effectively criminalized in many places:
“In 2019, while African Americans comprised thirteen percent of the United States population, they accounted for twenty-six percent of total arrests. Data from Canada shows that between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was nearly twenty times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service. In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, between April 2019 and March 2020, there were six stop and searches for every 1,000 white people, compared with fifty-four for every 1,000 Black people.”
From over-policing to over-incarceration to discriminatory sentencing, law enforcement’s treatment of Black people amounts to a global human rights violation. The report states, “[n]arratives that falsely associate Africans and people of African descent, including migrants, with criminal activities … continue to be used to justify laws and practices governing criminal justice systems.” In outlining a way forward, the report emphasizes that nations must do away with policies that are discriminatory in impact, even if they are not discriminatory in intent. Systemic racism must be yanked out by its roots. Individual actions which seek to treat the symptoms of inequality and oppression, such as Derrick Chauvin’s sentencing, are not enough. Policies must get to the cause of systemic racism, uprooting the biases and assumptions that desensitize our society to Black suffering and perpetuate dehumanization. Without Black people leading and being centered in these conversations, any attempt to root out systemic racism will inevitably fail and further erode the already frayed trust between governments and Black communities.
The Human Rights Council’s report calls on governments to end immunity for human rights violations committed by law enforcement officers, which make it almost impossible for victims of state-sponsored brutality to get justice. The report also recommends that nations rethink their concepts of criminality and employ nonviolent means in cases where people are suffering from a mental health crisis or are not an imminent threat to themselves or others. The report further stresses the need for more training for law enforcement concerning what constitutes a human rights violation, increased emphasis on de-escalation and conflict resolution, independent oversight, and robust investigations and swift accountability for wrongdoing. Victims and survivors must feel safe and empowered to come forward and seek justice; this includes providing them with trauma-informed care and support.
Because the report merely highlights the realities Black people have endured for decades, what does it truly accomplish? To me, the report’s greatest contribution is its discussion of anti-Black racism as a global problem, not just an American one. Like most attacks on human life and dignity, racism knows no national boundaries. While the report cannot compel any action, it is a powerful call to band together to dismantle dehumanizing systems which have devalued Black lives.