High Commissioner calls for immediate action to drive transformative change on racial justice

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently released a landmark report calling on States to adopt a “transformative agenda” and address systemic racism that undermines the rights and dignity of people, especially those of African descent, in countries across the globe.

The report stated that people of African descent “face inter-connected, intersectional and compounded racial discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion, shaped by historical legacies and mutually reinforced through cycles of structural inequalities that have lasted for generations, affecting the enjoyment of human rights in every part of life”.

Following the brutal death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American men killed by a law enforcement officer on 25 May 2020 in Minnesota, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 43/1 in June 2020 that tasked the High Commissioner to conduct consultations and draft a report on racial justice and equality.

“The status quo is untenable. Systemic racism needs a systemic response. We need a transformative approach that tackles the interconnected areas that drive racism and lead to repeated, wholly avoidable, tragedies like the death of George Floyd.”

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

In our submission to the High Commissioner, which was referenced multiple times in the report, the APT highlighted the nexus between systemic racism in law enforcement, excessive use of force and the risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

In identifying racism as one of the root causes of torture, we stressed the relevance of the preventive approach to address the risks of torture and ill-treatment.

Our submission also drew attention to the ways in which the social and economic marginalisation of people of African descent plays a catalyticrole in such abuses. We described how people of African descent are more likely to be subject to excessive use of force by law enforcement and are at higher risk of discriminatory identity checks, police killing, death penalty sentencing, death in custody and harsher criminal sentencing.

In her report, the High Commissioner set out a four-point agenda to end systemic racism and address racial discrimination and violations by law enforcement institutions:

  1. STEP UP: Stop denying and start dismantling
  2. PURSUE JUSTICE: End impunity and build trust
  3. LISTEN UP: People of African descent must be heard
  4. REDRESS: Confront past legacies, take special measures and deliver reparatory justice

“Racism and xenophobia have always been a risk factor for torture and ill-treatment. That’s why so much of our work with different stakeholders is focused on preventing torture by strengthening the implementation of safeguards in detention,” APT Secretary General Barbara Bernath said.

For example, in Madagascar, the APT is working in partnership with the Ministry of Internal Security to strengthen safeguards in the first hours of police custody, a time when persons deprived of liberty face heightened risks of torture and ill treatment.

We have also been a leading contributor to new international Principles on Effective interviewing for Investigations and Information Gathering, which seek to shift police practices from interrogation to rapport-based interviews.

“The APT will continue to work closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to advocate for concrete commitments by States to transform their law enforcement institutions and address systemic racism against people of African descent,” Ms Bernath said.

The High Commissioner’s report – Promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers (A/HRC/47/53) – was presented to the 47th session of the Human Rights Council on 12 July 2021.