The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights publishes a report on systemic racism

On 28 June 2021, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (“OHCHR”) published a report, authored by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, about systemic racism faced by people of African descent around the globe.

The report was authorised by resolution 43/1 of the Human Rights Council (passed on 17 June 2020), with followed an urgent debate on “current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests”. This, in turn, was prompted by the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests that ensued.

The report is the product of an investigation into violations of international human rights law by law enforcement, government responses to anti-racism peaceful protests, as well as accountability and redress for victims.

To prepare the report, the UN Human Commissioner sought the views of member States, regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, UN entities, and other key stakeholders. This report’s preparation involved the extensive consultation of hundreds of people, experts,  and written contributions.

The report described the current status quo and “untenable”. The report finds “an alarming picture of system-wide, disproportionate and discriminatory impacts on people of African descent in their encounters with law enforcement and the criminal justice system in some states”. The report argues that “systemic racism needs a systemic response. There needs to be a comprehensive rather than a piecemeal approach to dismantling systems entrenched in centuries of discrimination and violence…I am calling on all states to stop denying, and start dismantling, racism; to end impunity and build trust; to listen to the voices of people of African descent; and to confront past legacies and deliver redress.”

The High Commissioner’s recommendations included that the Human Rights Council either establish a specific, time-bound mechanism, or strengthen an existing mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement in all parts of the world.

In what can be considered a rebuke to the widely discredited report by the UK Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published in April 2021, the report also identifies a “long-overdue need to confront the legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism, and to seek reparatory justice…no State has comprehensively accounted for the past or for the current impact of systemic racism”. Indeed, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent released a statement following the publication of the UK Government report categorically rejecting and condemning the analysis and findings of the report. The Working Group described the UK Government’s report as "a tone-deaf attempt at rejecting the lived realities of people of African descent and other ethnic minorities in the UK".

Saunders Law’s client, Wendy Clarke, was interviewed by the High Commissioner and contributed to the High Commissioner’s report. Ms Clarke is the mother of Kevin Clarke who died in London after being restrained by multiple Metropolitan Police officers in March 2018.

The Jury at an inquest into Kevin’s death were highly critical of all those who were in charge of Kevin care in the lead up to and on the day of his death. In particular, the Jury found that Kevin’s restraint by multiple police officers contributed to his death. During this period of restraint, officers exerted disproportionate force on Kevin whilst he said “I can’t breathe” multiple times.* Kevin’s case is one of seven cases that are focused on by the High Commissioner throughout her report.

Wendy Clarke, Kevin Clarke’s mother, told the UN commission: “We want to see accountability, and real change, not just in training, but the perception and response to black people by the police and other services. We want mental health services better funded so the first point of response is not just reliant on the police.”

The conference room paper which accompanies the report says, “according to the analysis, when acting as first responders, police interventions often aggravate the situation including due to the use of restraints, while crises de-escalation protocols may not provide for appropriate crisis support services. Further, police often fail to identify the victims as individuals in distress and in need of rights-based mental health support. Instead, racial bias and stereotypes compounded with disability-based stereotypes appear to lead law enforcement officials to perceive the victim as “dangerous”, overriding considerations of the individual’s safety and well-being and of delivery of the appropriate care and basic life support. The death of Kevin Clarke in the United Kingdom is illustrative of this context”.

Following the publication of the report, Cyrilia Davies Knight, partner at Saunders Law, said: “we welcome the findings of this report and hope that it will go some way to prompting change. It is long overdue for the UK Government to implement fully the recommendations made by Dame Elish Angiolini QC in her 2017 report into deaths in UK police custody. Without doing so, the Government will not be able to begin addressing the UK’s systemic issues surrounding deaths in police custody”.

*Cyrilia Davies Knight and Ben Curtis of Saunders Law instructed Professor Leslie Thomas QC and Ifeanyi Odogwu of Garden Court Chambers in this inquest.


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