In 2013, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the International Decade for Persons of African Descent, to be observed from 2015 to 2024. More than halfway through the Decade, little progress has been made toward addressing the systemic racism faced by people of African descent in the US and around the world. As part of its ongoing advocacy for eradicating systemic racism in US law enforcement and urgently addressing racially biased police violence, The Advocates for Human Rights recently submitted statements to two United Nations human rights bodies that are currently examining these issues.
The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2002. Its mandate broadly calls for it to study the racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the diaspora and to recommend measures to address and eliminate this discrimination in order to ensure full and fair access to justice and to promote the human rights of people of African descent around the world. In late November of 2020, in preparation for a full session in December, the WGEPAD held a series of regional meetings with civil society organizations to receive their input about the situation of human rights for people of African descent, including the most currently urgent concerns, and the measures civil society believes should be prioritized to address those concerns. The Advocates participated in the WGEPAD’s meeting with civil society in Western Europe and North America and was among the organizations presenting oral statements.
In early December of 2020, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights called for inputs from civil society to assist in the preparation of a report requested by the Human Rights Council. The Office of the High Commissioner is the leading UN human rights entity, established by the General Assembly in 1993. The report requested by the Human Rights Council is to address “systemic racism, violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the death of George Floyd and other Africans and people of African descent, to contribute to accountability and redress for victims.” The request follows an unprecedented debate at the Council last summer on the subject of systemic racism in the U.S., urged by the African group of nations in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. The debate has prompted renewed examination of issues of systemic racism and police violence. However, a resolution passed by the Council at the conclusion of the debate was unfortunately (and to widespread criticism) stripped of all references to the United States.
In response to the call for inputs, The Advocates has submitted to the High Commissioner the same information it previously provided to the WGEPAD.
Here is the full text of our statement to both of these human rights mechanisms:
The case of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident murdered by police officers last May in the city where The Advocates for Human Rights is headquartered, starkly illustrated the widespread and longstanding human rights violations experienced by people of African descent in the United States. The problems we address today are longstanding ones. The post-slavery era of racial segregation laws enforced by police violence and lynchings was nominally ended by laws passed during the 1960s and 70s, but soon gave way to the criminalization of Black Americans and the era of mass incarceration, with millions deprived of the right to vote following criminal convictions, as well as through widespread voter suppression and racial gerrymandering designed to dilute the influence of Black voters.
The most immediately urgent human rights concerns facing people of African descent in the US today are racially discriminatory police violence and criminalization, and the deliberate suppression of their right to participate in the political process. These challenges are intertwined, as the unequal criminalization of Black people is a tool for their disenfranchisement, and their disenfranchisement prevents them from exercising political power.
Consider these statistics on the scope of racially discriminatory police violence:
- Black people are 3x more likely than white people to be killed by police.
- Black men face a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police.
- 8 of the largest police departments kill black men at higher rates than the U.S. murder rate
- Black people are about 12% of the population but account for at least 24% of those killed by police.
Investigations of many killings by police are internal, not truly independent and impartial as required by international standards such as the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Deaths. Since 2013, 99% of such killings have NOT resulted in officers being charged with a crime. Of 100 officers who were charged with a crime in connection with a fatal shooting since 2009, only 35 were convicted of any crime. All 50 states and Washington, D.C. U.S. states fail to comply with international standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement. Barriers to accountability include overly broad laws on reasonable use of force, and the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, which often shields officers from facing the consequences of their actions in even in civil courts.
The vast majority of protests prompted by Mr. Floyd’s murder were peaceful, but many were met with unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement and National Guard troops, which deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, and flashbang grenades. There were also several hundred reported incidents of law enforcement physically attacking, intimidating, and arbitrarily arresting journalists covering the protests.
Racial disparities in the criminal justice system extend far beyond encounters with police. A Black man in the US faces a 1 in 4 chance of going to prison. Black men make up 34% of the prison population and 41% of those on death row.
In 2016, 31 States had laws disenfranchising more than 6 million people with felony convictions, with a hugely disproportionate impact on Black Americans – more than 7% of adult Black Americans were disenfranchised, while less than 2% of others were affected. Added to the nearly half million currently incarcerated Black Americans, about 3.5 million adult Black Americans are simply not allowed to vote at all.
While George Floyd’s murder has sparked examinations of police accountability and modest institutional reform, to date change has been limited. In Minneapolis, for example, police are now barred from using chokeholds but major reform measures are still being debated. During the next 5 years, The Advocates would like to see the following measures prioritized.
- Dismantle existing policing systems and redesign them to ensure respect for and protection of human rights;
- Adopt at local, state, and national levels comprehensive legislation prohibiting racial profiling;
- Collect and publish disaggregated statistics about police stops, searches, and use of force, to monitor trends regarding racial profiling and treatment of minorities by law enforcement;
- Establish independent oversight bodies with jurisdiction over police conduct, with real authority to conduct impartial investigations of all complaints of human rights violations;
- Conduct a full review of police procedures and training to better comply with international human rights standards;
- Provide adequate resources to train law enforcement officials de-escalation and other techniques and strategies to minimize use of force;
- Assess the disproportionate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on racial and ethnic minorities;
- Create a national commission to examine police tactics nationwide, including the use of excessive force, militarization of local police forces, and policing of protests.
- Establish a national truth and reconciliation process to address the root causes and continuing impacts of structural racism that has existed since the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade, and to determine appropriate avenues of redress including collective reparations.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, which is but one example of the rampant and senseless killings of Black Americans by law enforcement, The Advocates will continue to actively press for the intervention of the international community to call for urgent and substantive reform.
To learn more:
- Watch The Advocates’ statement to the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
- International Decade for Persons of African Descent
- Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
By Lisa Borden, Staff Attorney in The Advocates’ International Justice Program.