On September 26, 2016, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) met with the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent to discuss details from its report published on August 18, 2016.
The report contained findings from its mission trip to the United States, which took place in January 2016, and highlighted the current and substantive challenges faced by people of the African diaspora within the United States.
In its report, the Working Group argued that the legacy of slavery in America “remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent.” It further reiterated its strong condemnation of the “continuing police killings and violence against African Americans” and “urged the Government to take serious action to prevent any further killings as a matter of national priority.” The report also concluded that “contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching” and that ongoing practices of racial profiling have undermined trust between police and the community. To combat these issues, the Working Group proposed broad policies to address issues of systemic racism and also offered an interesting administrative solution that may stem the number of police killings that take place every year. Specifically, it recommended that the United States implement a national database to track instances of excessive force, and to abolish the practice of racial profiling .
In light of the Working Group’s report, it is important to explore the history of this unique organ of the UN, and to examine the United States’ potential obligations to comply with the Working Group’s proposals. The origins of the Working Group stem from the United Nations’ World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR or Durban I), which was held in South Africa in 2001. Parties to the conference adopted the Durban Declaration and Progamme of Action. The Working Group was formally established in 2002 through Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2002/68. Its mandate requires the group to study the problems of racial discrimination with regard to peoples of the African diaspora, to propose solutions, and to submit recommendations towards the elimination of racial discrimination. Consistent with this mandate, the Working Group holds two annual sessions, undertakes individual country visits, and reports its findings to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. The Working Group’s current members include prominent human rights lawyers, academicians and general experts in areas of human rights and humanitarian law.
While the mandate does not bind any particular State to act upon its recommendations, the Working Group serves as a watchdog, with the imprimatur of the United Nations. It monitors instances of structural racism, and gives a voice to people of African descent enduring the vestiges of slavery and other forms of systemic oppression. One of the Working Group’s seminal accomplishments is its role in the adoption of a Resolution by the UN, which launched the “International Decade for People of African Descent: recognition, justice, and development” commencing in January 2015, and ending in December 2024. The Resolution provides UN financial and institutional support for the implementation of the Programme of Action and activities during the International Decade.
The United States’ relationship with the Working Group began in controversy. The U.S. and Israel backed out of the WCAR over arguments regarding the inclusion of a provision in the draft resolution of the Durban Declaration, which allegedly equated Zionism with racism. Even though the final resolution omitted the controversial provisions, several European countries joined Israel and the United States in boycotting Durban I as well as subsequent conferences. Since the Working Group receives its mandate from the Durban Declaration, to which the United States is not a signatory, the U.S. is not obligated to consider recommendations generated from the Working Group or collaborate with it in any discernable way.
Despite lacking an obligation, the United States has cooperated with the Working Group by facilitating its most recent mission visit to the United States. The U.S. government arranged for members of the Working Group to stop in several cities in various regions of the country. The Working Group met with officials at all levels of government, as well as police officers, members of civil society, and scores of African Americans citizens. While the United States remains reluctant to fully commit to the mission promulgated in Durban I (and the Working Group by extension), its cooperation and collaboration with the Working Group deserves credit. Most of the challenges facing the African diaspora are not unique to the United States. Considering proposals from an international perspective can only help in addressing the complicated challenges of race as it relates to the African diaspora in the United States.