Updated: Jun 26
By Pat Black, Soroptimist International Advisor 2019-2021
Recent events especially in the USA have highlighted issues related to racism, police brutality and the justice system. These issues are not singular to the United States but have been brought to prominence through specific events involving the way in which the police have dealt with individuals of colour, both male and female and their resulting deaths. In the USA there is specific legislative protection for police officers which has meant that many in civil society feel that justice is not being served.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts with the immediate sentence
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,”
before it goes on to ensure that the sentiments in that sentence are embodied throughout the Declaration, and then supported by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, The Human Rights Council, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and many other relevant international documents.
We support and uphold the values and principles of the United Nations and the various internationally agreed resolutions which recognise the value of all human beings.
We are concerned at the rise of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in political circles, in the sphere of public opinion and in society at large often reflected in all the forms of media.
We believe that democracy, transparent, responsible, accountable and participatory governance responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people, and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are essential for the effective prevention and elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that when government officials and public authorities engage in such acts they undermine the principle of non-discrimination and endanger democracy, providing a leadership which undermines society generally.
The International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination states that “people of African descent shall enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international standards”.
Regrettably racial stereotyping in the criminal justice system in many countries is common, distorting perception of facts and leading to miscarriages of justice, harsher sentencing, excessive use of force and at times re-victimization.
The long-term consequences are evident in everyday police-civilian interactions. This process of dehumanization often leads many to view black men and black children as older and more fearsome and menacing than they are. Even at very young ages, black children are seen as less childlike, more culpable and less innocent. This pattern of misperception is troubling. Police officers are often exonerated for killing black civilians on the premise that they fired their weapons out of fear for their lives.
Data collected by the Washington Post on the use of lethal force by the police since 2015 show that black people, despite being 13 per cent of the United States population, accounted for 26 per cent of those that were killed by police in 2015, 24 per cent in 2016 and 23 per cent in 2017. What this overrepresentation means is simply that black people were the victims of the lethal use of force by police at a rate that is nearly twice their representation in the general population. In the first half of 2018, black people made up 20 per cent of all those killed by police under all conditions. The deadly impact of the negative stereotypes of black people can be gleaned by looking at the racial composition of the people who were unarmed when killed by the police.
In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, data disclosed by the Metropolitan Police Service in August 2017 indicated that people of African descent and of ethnic minority background, in particular young African and Caribbean men, were twice as likely as other people to die from the use of force by police officers and the subsequent lack or insufficiency of access to appropriate health care. Despite making up just 14 per cent of the population, black, Asian and minority ethnic men and women make up 25 per cent of prisoners, while over 40 per cent of young people in custody are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. These deaths reinforce the experiences of structural racism, overpolicing and criminalization of people of African descent globally.
Harmful stereotypes and bias by State officials, including the police and organs of the criminal justice system, can lead to discrimination against women and girls affected by intersectional discrimination, resulting in violations of the rights to equal treatment before the law, fair trail and access to remedies. For instance, an inquiry conducted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that Aboriginal women in Canada were reluctant to report violence to the police mainly owing to police behaviour and bias, and that stereotypical attitudes towards Aboriginal women often had a negative impact on the quality of police investigation.
• Systematic and continuous efforts should be made to sensitize and build the capacity of professional categories, including the judiciary, the police, border guards, health and education personnel, the public administration, employers and others, to address discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes, to develop an understanding of the intersecting forms of discrimination and violence affecting women and girls, and to apply rights-based and gender and culturally sensitive methods;
• Efforts should be made to implement comprehensive outreach campaigns that bring together the general public, civil society organizations, local governments, educational institutions, the media and artists to dismantle myths, attitudes and stereotypes that discriminate and exclude women and girls on the basis of a combination of factors, such as gender, race, ethnicity and religion.
Based on UN Information Sources
Human Rights Council, Thirty-fifth session, June 2017, Annual Report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
General Assembly, August 2019, Report of the Working Group of Experts on people of African Descent