Endemic, structural racism that blights U.S. society need to be heard: UN rights chief

‘The voices calling for an end to the killings of unarmed African Americans need to be heard’

June 04, 2020 11:47 am | Updated 11:47 am IST

Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet

The UN’s top human rights official has said that the protests in the U.S. triggered by the custodial killing of George Floyd highlighted police violence against people of colour and the voices calling for an end to the endemic and structural racism that blights the American society need to be heard.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that the grievances at the heart of the protests that have erupted in hundreds of U.S. cities following the death of 46-year-old African-American Floyd need to be heard and addressed if the country is to move on from its tragic history of racism and violence.

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The voices calling for an end to the killings of unarmed African Americans need to be heard. The voices calling for an end to police violence need to be heard. And the voices calling for an end to the endemic and structural racism that blights U.S. society need to be heard, Ms. Bachelet said.

She stressed that while structural racism and police violence are found across the world, the anger we have seen in the U.S., erupting as COVID-19 exposes glaring inequalities in society, shows why far-reaching reforms and inclusive dialogue are needed there to break the cycle of impunity for unlawful killings by police and racial bias in policing.

This virus is exposing endemic inequalities that have too long been ignored. In the United States, protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd are highlighting not only police violence against people of colour, but also inequalities in health, education, employment and endemic racial discrimination , she said.

Over the past week, protests and demonstrations have erupted across the U.S. over the killing of Mr. Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last week after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, causing his death while in police custody.

Read: Medical examiner declares George Floyd death homicide - report

Despite concerns over spread of the coronavirus infection, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in more than 300 U.S. cities, as well as other large urban centres around the world, to take part in mostly peaceful protests calling for racial justice.

Ms. Bachelet said a country’s leaders need to condemn racism unequivocally at all times but especially during a crisis and they should reflect on what has driven people to boiling point; to listen and learn; and to take actions that truly tackle inequalities. The protests prompted city and state officials in many U.S. states to impose curfews and activate the National Guard in many areas .

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The UN Human Rights Office noted that there have been unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officers, including indiscriminate and improper use of less-lethal weapons and ammunition.

Tear gas has been used to disperse peaceful demonstrators and rubber bullets and pepper balls have been fired at demonstrators and journalists who did not pose an imminent threat of serious injury, the UN body said.

The Human Rights chief also voiced concern over hundreds of incidents of journalists covering the protests being physically attacked, intimidated or arbitrarily arrested, despite their press credentials being clearly visible.

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What has been happening is an unprecedented assault on journalists. In some cases they have been attacked or even arrested while on air. It is all the more shocking given that freedom of expression and of the media are fundamental principles in the U.S., central to the country’s identity, Ms. Bachelet said, calling on authorities at all levels to ensure the message is clearly understood — reporters must be able to do their important work free from attacks or repression.

As several people, including a federal law enforcement agent, having died in the unrest and dozens more left injured, small groups of people have also resorted to looting and vandalising , damaging retail stores and businesses and other properties. Ms. Bachelet said violence, looting and the destruction of property and neighbourhoods will not solve the problem of police brutality and entrenched discrimination.

I repeat my calls to protesters to express their demands for justice peacefully, and for the police to take the utmost care not to inflame the situation through the use of excessive force, she said.

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Ms. Bachelet called for all actions by the authorities and protesters that have led to death or injury, including of law enforcement officials, to be subject to independent, impartial and transparent investigations .

She also voiced deep concern at statements that have sought to label protesters as terrorists, or to delegitimise the mass outpouring of grief and peaceful protest by pointing to violence or destruction of property that has occurred in many locations.

There can be no doubt as to what or who is ‘behind’ these protests. We have seen thousands upon thousands of peaceful protesters, of diverse backgrounds, taking to the streets to demand their rights and to call for change. Many police officers, as well as National Guard troops, have also responded peacefully to those gathered on the streets, Ms. Bachelet said.

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She added that the protests have highlighted the need for a profound examination of a wide range of issues, including socio-economic factors and deep-seated discrimination. To move forward, communities must be able to participate in shaping decisions that affect them and be able to air their grievances, Ms. Bachelet said.

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