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U.N. rights chief urges reparations for Black people, calls for an end to discrimination

A woman in a mask stands in front of piled flowers and signs on pavement covered with messages written in chalk.
A woman pays her respects at a makeshift memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In a landmark report launched after the murder of George Floyd, the United Nations human rights chief 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.

Monday’s 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 Black people, notably because of the transatlantic slave trade. It seeks a “transformative” approach to address its continued effect today.

The report, a year in the making, hopes to build on the intensified scrutiny of racism worldwide and its effects on people of African descent, as exemplified by the high-profile killings of unarmed Black people in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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

The report urges countries to speed up action to end racial injustice.

“I am calling on all states to stop denying — and start dismantling — racism,” Bachelet said in a video statement, “to end impunity and build trust, to listen to the voices of people of African descent and to confront past legacies and deliver redress.”

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George Floyd died in police custody on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. His death led to the trial and conviction of former officer Derek Chauvin.

Broaching the issue of reparations in her most explicit way yet, Bachelet suggested that monetary compensation alone was not enough and should 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, acknowledgment of injustices, apologies, memorialization, educational reforms and “guarantees” that such injustices won’t happen again.

Bachelet, a former president of Chile, hailed the efforts of advocacy groups and movements such as Black Lives Matter, saying they helped provide “grass-roots leadership through listening to communities” and that they should receive “funding, public recognition and support.”

The U.N.-backed Human Rights Council commissioned the report during a special session last year following the murder of Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. The former officer, Derek Chauvin, was sentenced last week to 22½ years in prison.

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

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the formation of an advisory commission that would develop a pilot reparations program targeted at a cohort of Black Angelenos.

The demonstrations against Floyd’s killing and the “momentous” verdict against Chauvin are a “seminal point in the fight against racism,” the U.N. report says.

The report was based on discussions with more than 340 people, mostly of African descent, and experts; over 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 were rarely held accountable for rights violations and crimes against Black people , and it noted similar patterns of mistreatment by police across many countries.

The report ultimately aims for 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 are clearly a major theme.

Lawmakers are arguing over some of the same issues that kept policing reform from passing last summer.

The report also lays 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 [on] the lives of people of African descent today,” Mona Rishmawi, who leads a unit on nondiscrimination 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 that “it’s not one-size-fits-all.” She said countries must look at their own pasts and practices to assess how to proceed.

Rishmawi said Bachelet’s team found “a main part of the problem is that many people believe the misconceptions that the abolition of slavery, the end of the transatlantic trade and colonialism, have removed the racially discriminatory structures built by those practices.”

“We found that this is not true,” said Rishmawi, who also denounced a pernicious idea among some “associating Blackness with criminality. ... There is a need to address this.”

Though mired in controversy, Patrisse Cullors’ stepping down is just the evolution of a grass-roots organization that’s no longer quite as grass-roots.

The U.N. report calls 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 decries the “dehumanization of people of African descent” that is “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 cites inequalities and “stark socioeconomic and political marginalization” faced by Black people in many countries, including unfair access to education, healthcare, jobs, housing and clean water.

“We believe very strongly that we only touched the tip of the iceberg,“ Rishmawi said. ”We really believe that there is a lot more work that needs to be done.”


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