Ending racial injustice requires reparations, says UN report

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a meeting in Geneva that a worldwide undertaking to address historical discrimination of people of African descent is overdue. The UN has released a landmark report addressing systemic racism.

Martial Trezzini/AP
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 9, 2020. A new UN report calls for global action to end discrimination, violence, and systemic racism.

The U.N. human rights chief, in a landmark report launched after the killing of George Floyd in the United States, is urging countries worldwide to do more to help end discrimination, violence, and systemic racism against people of African descent and “make amends” to them – including through reparations.

The report from Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, offers a sweeping look at the roots of centuries of mistreatment faced by Africans and people of African descent, notably from the transatlantic slave trade. It seeks a “transformative” approach to address its continued impact today.

The report, a year in the making, hopes to build on momentum around the recent, intensified scrutiny worldwide about the blight of racism and its impact on people of African descent as epitomized by the high-profile killings of unarmed Black people in the United States and elsewhere.

“There is today a momentous opportunity to achieve a turning point for racial equality and justice,” the report said.

The report aims to speed up action by countries to end racial injustice; end impunity for rights violations by police; ensure that people of African descent and those who speak out against racism are heard; and face up to past wrongs through accountability and redress.

“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,” Ms. Bachelet said in a video statement.

While broaching the issue of reparation in her most explicit way yet, Ms. Bachelet suggested that monetary compensation alone is not enough and would be part of an array of measures to help rectify or make up for the injustices.

“Reparations should not only be equated with financial compensation,” she wrote, adding that it should include restitution, rehabilitation, acknowledgement of injustices, apologies, memorialization, educational reforms, and “guarantees” that such injustices won’t happen again.

The U.N.-backed Human Rights Council commissioned the report during a special session last year following the murder of Mr. Floyd, a Black American who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was sentenced to 22-1/2 years in prison last week.

Protests erupted after excruciating bystander video showed how Mr. Floyd gasped repeatedly, “I can’t breathe!” as onlookers yelled at Mr. Chauvin to stop pressing his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck.

The protests against Mr. Floyd’s killing and the “momentous” verdict against Mr. Chauvin are a “seminal point in the fight against racism,” the report said.

The report was based on discussions with more than 340 people – mostly of African descent – and experts; more than 100 contributions in writing, including from governments; and review of public material, the rights office said.

It analyzed 190 deaths, mostly in the U.S., to show how law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable for rights violations and crimes against people of African descent, and it noted similar patterns of mistreatment by police across many countries.

The report ultimately aims to transform those opportunities into a more systemic response by governments to address racism, and not just in the U.S. – although the injustices and legacy of slavery, racism, and violence faced by African Americans was clearly a major theme.

The report also laid out cases, concerns, and the situation in roughly 60 countries including Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, and France, among others.

“We could not find a single example of a state that has fully reckoned with the past or comprehensively accounted for the impacts of the lives of people of African descent today,” Mona Rishmawi, who leads a unit on non-discrimination at the U.N. human rights office, told a news conference. “Our message, therefore, is that this situation is untenable.”

Compensation should be considered at the “collective and the individual level,” she said, while adding that any such process “starts with acknowledgment” of past wrongs and “it’s not one-size-fits-all.” She said countries must look at their own pasts and practices to assess how to proceed.

The U.N. report called on countries to make “ amends for centuries of violence and discrimination” such as through “formal acknowledgment and apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms.”

It also decried the “dehumanization of people of African descent” that was “rooted in false social constructions of race” in the past to justify enslavement, racial stereotypes, and harmful practices as well as tolerance for racial discrimination, inequality, and violence.

It cited inequalities faced by people of African descent and the “stark socioeconomic and political marginalization” they face in many countries, including unfair access to education, health care, jobs, housing, and clean water.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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