UN human rights group has issued an urgent call for countries to take immediate action to uproot systemic racism including ending police impunity in a report that highlights the case of of a mentally ill black man who died following restraint in police custody in South London. ‘The status quo is untenable,’ said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. ‘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.’
The UN investigation was launched in the wake of the murder by a police officer of the 46 year old in Minneapolis and identifies seven ‘emblematic incidents’ including the case of Kevin Clarke which were examined to illustrate ‘practices, patterns and challenges’. Clarke, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was living in supported housing at the time of his death on in 2018 after being restrained by the police. In police body-cam footage, Clarke can be heard telling officers: ‘I can’t breathe … I’m going to die.’ He died in police custody at Lewisham hospital later that day.’ You can read about Kevin Clarke on the Justice Gap here.
The High Commissioner’s analysis finds that law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable for human rights violations and crimes committed against people of African descent—partly due to inadequate investigations but also as a result of lack of robust oversight and a widespread ‘presumption of guilt’ against people of African descent.
The Office of the High Commissioner received information on over 250 incidents of deaths of Africans and people of African descent, ‘at least 190’ of which were at the hands of law enforcement officials. Of the 190 incidents, 98% took place in Europe, Latin America and North America. ‘While the incidents occurred in countries with varying legal systems, some of the practices, patterns and challenges were the same,’ the report said. The analysis of these incidents found that three key settings underlie over 85% of police-related fatalities: first, ‘the policing of minor offences, traffic stops and stops-and-searches’, as in the cases of George Floyd (US), Adama Traoré (France) and Luana Barbosa dos Reis Santos (Brazil); second, the intervention of law enforcement officials as first responders in mental health crises, as in the case of Kevin Clarke (UK); and third is the conduct of special police operations, as in the cases of Breonna Taylor (US), Janner García Palomino (Colombia) and João Pedro (Brazil). In these three contexts, ‘racial bias, stereotypes and profiling’ appear to play recurrent roles.
The report argues that ‘systemic racism and enduring harmful and degrading associations of blackness with criminality and delinquency’ shape interactions of people of African descent with law enforcement officials. An assessment of the impact of this link was ‘often hampered’ by the lack of data.
‘When it is available, the data is worrying,’ the report continues. ‘For example, in 2019, while African-Americans comprised 13% of the US population, they accounted for 26% of total arrests. Data from Canada shows that, “between 2013 and 2017, a black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service”. In the UK, between April 2019 and March 2020, “there were six stop and searches for every 1,000 white people, compared with 54 for every 1,000 black people”.’
The High Commissioner concludes: ‘Racial discrimination in law enforcement cannot, as the Human Rights Council recognized, be separated from questions of systemic racism. Only approaches that tackle both the endemic shortcomings in law enforcement, and address systemic racism – and the legacies it is built on – will do justice to the memory of George Floyd and so many others whose lives have been lost or irreparably damaged.’
Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, said that while the UK government was ‘explicit in its denial of systemic racism, this UN report confronts them with the evidence’. ‘The disproportionate number of black men who die after the use of lethal force and neglect by the state is at the sharp end of a continuum of violence and racism. There is a pattern of systemic racism in our policing and criminal justice system.’
‘State violence and racism are global human rights issues, and action is long overdue. Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, the response of the UK government in this report is disingenuous. From continued issues with accessing funding for legal representation at inquests; delay, denial, dehumanisation and obfuscation from police and public authorities; and ultimately yet more deaths. It is clear to us that much more needs to be done to enable transformative structural change’, Coles continued.