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Introduction to the UN Session on Structural Racism

UN CTS Panel 1Tuesday, November 3, 2015
United Nations
ECOSOC Chamber
New York City

As part of the International Decade for People of African Descent, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sponsored a program in cooperation with Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Nations Department of Public Education, UNESCO, the Organisation de la Francophonie, Black Lives Matter Initiative and Amnesty International USA.

As explained on the United Nations website, “The UN General Assembly proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent (resolution 68/237) with the theme ‘People of African descent: recognition, justice and development’. At the centre of this initiative is the promotion and protection of all human rights of people of African descent, the improvement of their well-being and the recognition of their culture, history and contribution to societies.  The General Assembly also endorsed a programme of activities (resolution 69/16) which is to be implemented by all the relevant actors, including the United Nations, Member States, regional and subregional organizations, civil society actors, including organizations of people of African descent.  The Decade and its programme of activities are an integral part of the full and effective implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (  As such all the relevant actors are expected through the effective observance and implementation of the Decade to further advance the anti-racism agenda as defined inter alia in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, its Outcome document and political deliberation, and the International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.”

An audience of several hundred filled the hall of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), including Pan-Afrikan activists from the United States, the Caribbean and Europe.

The event featured remarks from Ms. Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, as well as statements from Mrs. Samaria Rice, mother of 12-year-old Cleveland, Ohio police brutality victim Tamir Rice, and Mr. John Crawford, Jr., father of John Crawford III, a 22-year-old man who was shot to death in a Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart while holding a toy BB gun.  Their statements, as well as those from human rights observers from different areas of the African Diaspora, will be discussed in the next article.  This article will concentrate on the introductory remarks, the Keynote speeches from Ms. Mireille Fanon-Mendes France and Mr. Harry Belafonte, and the report on racial profiling in the Diaspora from Mr. Mutuma Ruteere, Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which effectively spelled out the issue of racism and racial profiling by law enforcement personnel against people of African descent around the world.

Opening Remarks

Bob Herbert
Former NY Times Columnist, Demos Scholar, author of the book “Losing Our Way”

“The Human Rights Office welcomes the opportunity to cosponsor this event in the context of the International Decade for Peoples of African Descent, along with our partners, DPI, UNESCO, the International Organization of Francophonie, Unitarian Universalist Association, Black Lives Matter and Amnesty International USA.

“People of African descent worldwide are a distinct group, that regrettably, over the course of history faced common challenges if racism and structural discrimination and continue to face impediments to the realization of their rights. Slavery and the slave trade are the base of the widespread and systemic manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance that we see today against people of African descent.  Racism and racial discrimination was firmly entrenched in colonial societies and reinforced in contemporary societies through increasing socioeconomic inequalities, exclusion, marginalization and injustice against people of African descent.  I look forward to hearing your views on what can be done during this Decade ay the international, regional and national levels to improve the situation of people of African descent.  What more can we do to encourage states to strengthen protection of human rights of people of African descent, particularly in terms of their adequate access to quality education, health and employment, access to justice, social and economic inclusion, poverty eradication and potential participation?”


Zeid Ra’ad Hussein
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

“Across the globe, women, men and children of African descent struggle against racism, inequality and in justice. This includes unequal treatment before the law.  In many countries, people of African descent, particularly young men, experience alarming rates of sometimes lethal police action, and are subjected to racial profiling and bias in the crimo0nal justice system.  They are more frequently incarcerated and are more likely to be subjected to harsh sentences, including the death penalty.  People of African descent are also victims of hate crimes and Afrophobia.  Communities of African descent are often also poor and marginalized, with high rates of maternal mortality and limited access to economic opportunities or quality education, health services, housing and social security.  Women and girls of African descent are subject to compounded discrimination on the grounds of sex and race.  This structural and institutional discrimination has deep roots in slavery and colonialism, and it is a universal concern, an appalling affront to the human tights that we stand for.  And yet efforts by communities to seek redress for these violations are often ignored.  We need systems that ensure equal education, employment and opportunities for all.  Systems that guarantee that law enforcement will be colorblind. …

“The entire United Nations System is committed to eradicating racism and racial discrimination against people of African descent in line with the Programme of Activities for the Decade, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and the International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination signed 50 years ago. We must continue to partner with Civil Society, which is doing an invaluable work.  Many women and men of African descent have made great contributions to civil rights, freedom and the struggle for justice.  Their courage in the face of oppression, their fearless persistence, their dignity and often their grace have been an inspirational force for many, myself included.  Together, we shall overcome in injustice, and build a more fair, more equal future.  I thank you.”
Bruce Knotts
Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council and Canadian Universalist Association United Nations Office

“I want to thank all of you here, and all of you watching this broadcast. …

“The international community has noted your concern. We need to ensure that they keep what you discuss here on the front burner of the global human rights agenda. …

“Our first principle is to promote the inherent worth and dignity of everyone, everywhere. In that spirit, in June, the UUA General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement.  We’ve hung banners outside of our places of worship proclaiming that ‘Black Lives Matter’.  Some of these banners have been vandalized or destroyed.  We have repeatedly replaced them.  We get hate mail telling us that ‘all lives matter’ and ‘police lives matter’.  Here is my response. Of course all lives matter and police lives matter.  However, when the Fire Department comes to your neighborhood, do you send the firefighters to all the houses, ore to the house that’s on fire?  For over five hundred years, the house of the people of African descent has been on fire.  While some have succeeded and barriers for some have been lowered, for many, if not most, of people of African descent around the world, they live in a world facing bigotry and destructive [forces] which deny opportunities granted to others, denial of liberty while others go free, and violence of a frequency and intensity not experienced by others and that all too often ends in death.  It is particularly tragic when this needless violence results in the death of children.  It’s not heroic when a big, burly man in a uniform throws a small teenage girl of color on the floor.  All too often the big burly men who beat, shoot and kill Black children face no consequences for their unjustified violence.  When society fails to punish unjustified violence against Black women, men and children, it screams that Black lives don’t matter.  It’s this callous indifference to Black lives that requires all of us to scream back our conviction that Black lives do matter.

“The UN has declared this the Decade of People of African Descent. Let’s use this Decade to stop the ugly bigotry through violence that is directed towards people of African descent and recognize that when this happens to Black people without consequences, far more often than others, it constitutes a major structural human rights violation which demands urgent international attention and immediate action to end the discrimination of individuals, families and communities of people of African descent.

“When society fails to punish unjustified violence against Black women, men and children, it screams that Black lives don’tmatter.  It’s this callous indifference to Black lives that requires all of us to scream back our conviction that Black lives domatter.”
— Bruce Knotts

“So today, we hope to send the firefighters to the right house and give them the right instructions. Our goal is not to blame any member state, but rather to eliminate structural racism wherever it exists.  Most of all, our mission here today, and in the future, is to save the lives of men, women and children of African descent who, no less than the rest of us, deserve a safe and secure life.”

Mr. Knotts then introduced the first of the three Keynote Speakers for the day’s event, Calypso legend and Human Rights Activist Harry Belafonte.

The Keynote Speeches

Harry Belafonte
Internationally Acclaimed Human Rights Activist, Singer, Actor and Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund)
UN Belafonte 1One of the most successful Caribbean American pop stars in history, he was dubbed the “King of Calypso” for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s. He was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s, and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s confidants.  Throughout his career he has been an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa.  Since 1987 he has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.  In recent years he has been a vocal critic of the policies of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations.  (from Wikikpedia)

In his resonant baritone voice, now rendered gravelly with age but still commanding and strong, he spoke of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt upon his introduction to the UN: “I got to know Africans in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have known them.”

He spoke of meeting Paul Robeson and other giants of Africa and the African Diaspora, and he spoke of his Jamaican mother, who had come to America “undereducated, came here looking for opportunity and instead of that, found belligerence. She found resistance.  She discovered racism. …”

“Artists are the gatekeepers of the truth. … We are humanity’s moral compass. … Using the arts as a tool for bringing the human family together … for a common humanity, specifically engaged in spreading the word of Africa [through the] songs of the Caribbean, songs of Africa. …”

Mr. Belafonte spoke of the Second World War and its struggle to end fascism: “All of that was supposed to have been brought to an end” but racial oppression continued in America.  “From that time until now, not a day has been spent where I was not committed to sorting out and looking for reasonable ways in which to engage.  The United Nations became a righteous place for me.  Through Eleanor Roosevelt and all the new African nations that were beginning to appear in great abundance, I visited Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, and in her home I met the delegate from Kenya, the delegate from Tanzania, the delegate from Ethiopia, the delegates from everywhere, and I began to understand the great variety that existed among peoples of color in the Diaspora. I found great excitement in that fact.  And I found in it an opportunity to [explore] the arts of the Diaspora, and use it as a platform in which to gain liberation not just for Black people, but for all of our humanity.

“I’m deeply honored and I’m grateful for this opportunity to stand before this lordship. I hope the fruits of this convening will bring the Diaspora close together, because I sadly tell you that as much as African [Americans] speak to calling themselves African[s], most of us of color in America know little, very little about the Diaspora.  We don’t know our Brazilian Brothers and Sisters.  We don’t know our Haitian Brothers and Sisters.  Perhaps in title, in some fleeting moment, [but] the depth of us, as African Descendants, is not known one to the other.  Through the arts, we can change that.  Through the needs of the human race, the United Nations is the perfect place for us to sit and have exchanges to find our deeper humanity in settling the affairs of the cruelty of racism and classism.  I thank you very much.”
Mireille Fanon-Mendes France
Chairperson of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and the Daughter of Legendary writer Frantz Fanon

Mr. Knotts introduced her by stating that “her input to this program today has emphasized that we need to listen to grassroots leaders, and you will hear them.” Following are some of her remarks.
UN CTS Fanon 1“On behalf of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, I am pleased to be here with you today. As some of you may know, as recommended by the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, the Working Group was established in 2002 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.  Its objective is to study the problems of … racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and associated in tolerance faced by people of African origin. …”

She spoke of the concept of race as a historical myth used to prop up and support the enforcement of inequality, a system that is “incompatible with democracy.”

“It is important to recognize that the challenge of the Decade, ‘Recognition, Justice and Development’, the aim of reducing forever the legacy of a culture of hatred, is a dynamic means to end the poisonous legacy of that history. … These three things are important areas to be addressed comprehensively for the applicability, effectiveness and justifiability of people of African descent and Africans in the Diaspora around the world.

“To conclude, I have to note that the Working Group has played an important role in the development of the Programme of Activity of the International Decade for People of African Descent and continues to be a strong advocate for its implementation. … We look forward to engaging with the broader Civil Society, as well as Member States of the United Nations, as well as the United Nations and its agencies … to make the Decade a substantial change in the paradigm of domination and therefore a success.  I thank the organizers for inviting the Working Group and thank you for your attention.”

Racial Profiling and Racism in Law Enforcement Across the Diaspora

Mutuma Ruteere
Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

UN Mutuma Ruteere 1Mr. Mutuma Ruteere delivered the third of the three Keynote Speeches, and presented a comprehensive analysis of racism and racial profiling by law enforcement that set the stage for the statements that were to come from Ms. Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, Mrs. Samaria Rice and Mr. John Crawford Jr.  Mr. Ruteere lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and is the Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.  He also serves as Director, Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, an independent research centre based in Nairobi Kenya. He holds a PhD in political science with a specialization in human rights.  Mr. Ruteere has extensively published on human rights in particular on the thematic violence and policing, terrorism and counter- terrorism, civil wars and transitions, poverty and access to rights.  He has advised state agencies, NGOs and private sector organizations on human rights.  His current work at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies attempts to link theoretical research with innovative policy making to address human rights issues.  In addition to his two annual thematic reports, Mr Ruteere undertakes two country visits per year and subsequently reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly.  Since he was appointed, Mr. Ruteere visited Hungary, Bolivia and Spain at the invitation of the respective Governments.  (from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Page,

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to be here with you today to discuss the important issue of racial profiling which is a practice that persists around the world and continues to impair the enjoyment of fundamental rights of individuals and groups.

“This year, I am dedicating my report to the Human Rights Council to the issue of racial and ethnic profiling in law enforcement.

“My report examines the context leading to the practice of racial profiling and provides an overview of its different manifestations. It also presents different positive practices initiated towards the elimination of racial profiling and makes several recommendations.

“Profiling is prevalent in everyday law enforcement practices, but it is also worth highlighting that the issue also arises, and is arising at the moment, with regard to policies connected to national security and immigration.

“The manifestation of racial profiling has been observed in ‘stop and check’ operations, which in some places disproportionately target minority groups. In Europe, for instance, minorities including Roma people suffer unequal levels of stops by the police.  Similarly, people of African descent have historically and continue to be subjected to practices of racial profiling.

“Different patterns of racial and ethnic profiling have surfaced in recent years as ways of taking measures to combat terrorism.  Migrants and minority groups have been particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of these law enforcement practices.  In the context of immigration, official border crossings and hubs of transportation, such as airports, railroad crossings and bus depots, have been common places where racial and ethnic profiling takes place.

“I am also concerned about the development of new technologies that purport to create risk profiles for specific ethnic groups. Use of this software by law enforcement agencies has generated fears that racial and ethnic profiling may become a regularized and permanent feature of immigration and border control management systems around the world.

“Profiling in the administration of justice has often led to unjust and disproportionate punishment of individuals of traditionally discriminated groups and, in particular, people of African descent.  This discrimination is partly enabled by high levels of discretionary powers in the administration of criminal justice systems.  In some contexts, this practice has been intensified by direct discrimination wherein harsher punishments related to certain kinds of recreational drugs have disproportionately affected minorities.

“Studies have identified correlations between racial status and harsher criminal sentences, and evidence from different countries around the world shows that implicit bias has noticeably [shaped] criminal investigations. Consequently, in some cases, prison populations tend to be comprised of severely disproportionate numbers of persons from minority communities which further contributes to their stigmatization.

“I cannot emphasize enough that racial and ethnic profiling is prohibited in International Human Rights Law and this practice violates … human rights including the tight to live free from discrimination, the right to equality before the law, the right to personal freedom and security, and the right to the presumption of innocence.

“The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination forbids the use of racial profiling.  The General Equality Provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also covers questions of profiling as do specific guarantees prohibiting relative to the right to liberty and security of persons, the right against arbitrary arrest or detention, and the right to liberty.  Moreover, as denoted by my colleague, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action calls upon states to enforce effective measures to eliminate profiling.

“The Rabat Plan of Action, which has been developed by a number of Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations, has also called upon states to enhance their efforts to combat negative stereotypes and discrimination … based on nationality, education, religion and beliefs.

“I cannot emphasize enough that racial and ethnic profiling is prohibited in International Human Rights Law and this practice violates … human rights including the tight to live free from discrimination, the right to equality before the law, the right to personal freedom and security, and the right to the presumption of innocence.”
— Mutuma Ruteere

“A number of states have made efforts to combat the phenomenon, through the adoption of laws and policies, establishment of adequate institutional frameworks such as oversight and equality bodies, and the implementation or training and awareness-raising initiatives. States have begun to combat profiling, yet additional steps remain in order to effectively address this problem.  In this regard, I would like to once more stress that legislative measures are central to any strategy to combat discrimination and racism by law enforcement agencies and for this reason I continue to encourage states that have not enacted specific legislation outlawing the use of racial and ethnic profiling to seriously consider doing so in order to fight impunity and further provide remedies, redress and reparations to victims of such practices.

“I have recommended that states gather law enforcement data including statistics disaggregated by ethnicity and race which are essential in order to prove the existence and extent of racial and ethnic profiling.  Furthermore, investigative oversight bodies should have the authority to address allegations of racial and ethnic profiling, and make practical recommendations for policy changes.  Finally, I call for effective regulation of discretionary powers of law enforcement personnel in order to reduce the risk of racial and ethnic profiling.  There are several approaches that may be used in a complementary fashion, such as improving the quality and precision of intelligence gathering, making sure that law enforcement agents use this information in their decision making, increasing the supervision of law enforcement officers’ discretionary capacities, and enhancing civilians’ understanding of their rights and responsibilities in encounters with law enforcement agents, an otherwise important role of the Civil Society.

“I thank you all, and I assure you of my partnership in promoting equal dignity, rights and progress of individuals of all races, groups and nationalities. Thank you very much.”