From Slavery Reparations to Voter-ID Laws, UN 'Working Group' Slams U.S.

By Patrick Goodenough | February 1, 2016 | 4:30am EST
Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, chairperson of the U.N. working group of experts on people of African descent. (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

( – A trio of U.N. human rights experts ended a fact-finding visit to the United States Friday with a sharp critique of the conditions faced by African-Americans today, and decried the fact that “there has been no real commitment to recognition and reparations” for slavery.

Members of the so-called “U.N. working group of experts on people of African descent” drew a connection between controversial incidents of police shootings of African-Americans to lynching of past years.

“Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past,” they said a lengthy statement, parts of which were read out at a press briefing in Washington, D.C.

“Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

In another present/past equation, the experts compared slavery to the incarceration of large numbers of blacks for drugs offenses.

“The devastating impact of the ‘war on drugs’ has led to mass incarceration and is compared to enslavement, due to exploitation and dehumanization of African Americans,” they declared.

The three – French law professor Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, Filipino human rights lawyer Ricardo Sunga and South African legal scholar Sabelo Gumedze – called for a greater emphasis in school curricula on the history of colonization and the transatlantic slave trade.

They also recommended that “monuments, memorials and markers” highlighting the slavery issue be erected, and for federal and state legislation “recognizing the experience of enslavement” to be passed.

Specifically, they called on Congress to pass “The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” The legislation, introduced a year ago by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), provides for the establishment of a commission to study the issue and recommend “appropriate remedies.”

The trio’s 20-day visit included time in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Md., Jackson, Miss., Chicago, Ill. And New York City. They met with government officials, lawmakers, civil society representatives, rights activists and families of people killed by police.

Their full report and recommendations will be presented in September to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, but the lengthy preliminary statement provided a good indication of how critical that final report will be.

“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the U.S. remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” it said.

“Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today.

“The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the U.S. population.”

Voter ID requirements ‘discriminate’

The U.N. experts did voice approval for some policies and initiatives, including the recent executive order aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement in prisons. And they praised the Affordable Care Act, which they said “has allowed 2.3 million African-American adults to gain medical health insurance.”

But they were highly critical of voter-ID laws, charging that “increased identification requirements in several states served to discriminate [against] minorities such as African-Americans contrary to the spirit of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”

(During the last presidential election year four years ago, the NAACP approached the HRC in Geneva to complain about what it called “racially-discriminatory election laws.” The HRC includes countries where free elections are unknown, including current members China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.)

The three experts also criticized “stand your ground” laws, alleged racial bias in the criminal justice system and, in general, “systemic” racial discrimination which they said had the effect of denying development to the poorest black communities

“The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education, housing, employment and labor, and even food security, among African-Americans and the rest of the U.S. population, reflects the level of structural discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights,” said part of the report, read out at the briefing by Mendes-France.

The “U.N. working group of experts on people of African descent” was established by the HRC’s now-defunct predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, following the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

The Bush administration withdrew from the Durban conference, amid controversy over demands for reparations for slavery and attempts to brand Israel as a racist state.

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