A United Nations panel of experts has issued a wide-ranging and scathing account of the plight of black people in the United States, in the process urging American legislators to establish a body to consider the question of making reparations to the descendants of Africans who were brought to the US to toil as slaves.
Speaking at a press conference in Washington, DC, three members of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said that Congress should pass the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, a bill that Michigan Representative John Conyers last introduced in 2015.
Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, the working group chair and a French human rights expert, told VICE News that the US hadn't properly addressed the legacy of enslavement or adequately provided necessary redress for those who are descended from Africans forcibly resettled in bondage.
"It's been absolutely insufficient," she remarked. "They are excluded, they are invisible. There is structural racism and structural discrimination, and they face that because of the pigmentation of their skin."
Mendes-France, the daughter of the Martinique-born writer and leading black intellectual Franz Fanon, clarified that she is not in favor individual payments, as the idea of reparations is often presented in America. She applauded efforts in the Caribbean to sue the British government for centuries of slavery, and recommended that reparations in the US be funneled through the financing and "full implementation of special programs based on education, socioeconomic, and environmental rights."
Mendes-France and fellow working group members Sabelo Gumedze of South Africa and Ricardo A. Sunga III of the Philippines spoke in the US capitol after an 11-day tour of the country, with additional stops in Baltimore, Chicago, New York, and Jackson, Mississippi. The panel, staffed with different experts, last visited the US in 2010.
Though the group will not release a full report of its findings until a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in September, each member read from a lengthy preliminary statement that touched on mass incarceration, police brutality, lack of housing, and the US government's failure to ratify a number of international human rights treaties.
"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," said the group's preliminary report. "The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education and even food security… reflects the level of structural discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights."
The three experts roundly criticized what they called a lack of gun control and the passage of stand-your-ground laws in several states, saying that they demonstrated how "the state is also not acting with due diligence to protect the rights of African-American communities."
Citing the killings by police of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Oscar Grant, and Marlon Brown — among others — the panel added that they were "concerned about the alarming levels of police brutality and excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement officials committed with impunity."
The working group said it was unacceptable that there remained no "national system to track killings committed by law enforcement officials."
Among its recommendations, the working group said that Washington should allow the independent monitoring of jails and prisons in the US and consider inviting the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as a separate working group focused on arbitrary detention, to evaluate conditions at detention facilities.
The preliminary report recognized several initiatives undertaken nationally since 2010, including a recent executive order aimed at reducing the number of federal prisoners that are kept in solitary confinement. It also highlighted the work of a congressional task force determining that punitive mandatory sentences for drug crimes led to prison overcrowding. The group also noted that the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's healthcare overhaul, had allowed 2.3 million black people to obtain health insurance.
But the panel added that "despite the positive measures… the Working Group is extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African-Americans." Despite pushback against mandatory minimum sentencing, the group said that the war on drugs has led "to mass incarceration that is compared to enslavement, due to exploitation and dehumanization of African-Americans."
The preliminary report highlighted pollution and other environmental concerns — including the ongoing scandal over lead contamination in Flint, Michigan's water supply — which the experts said disproportionately affect minority communities across the country.
As it did in 2010, the panel also heavily censured US states that prevent individuals from voting based on their criminal histories, and those that have in recent years implemented stringent voter-ID laws. According to the Sentencing Project, 5.85 million Americans cannot cast ballots due to felony convictions, including one out of every 13 blacks.
"Especially considering that people of African descent are being targeted for racial profiling and disproportionate sentencing, in our view the right to vote is so important that it must be guaranteed to everyone," Sunga said.
Sunga added that he was particularly concerned about policing in schools, where "children are being charged with misdemeanors… leading to the school-to-prison pipeline, this vicious cycle."
"That actually creates the conditions, recreates the current situation, and we'd certainly like to have that matter addressed," he said.
Several activists who had spoken with the working group this year or during past visits were present in Washington on Friday. Michael Scott, the CEO of Equity Matters, a nonprofit in Baltimore that promotes access to healthcare, said that the experts had this year inquired about the gap between existing policies aimed at curbing discrimination and their enforcement.
"There are many laws on the books, like affirmative fair housing, that do not get enforced," he said.
The working group noted that because the US has failed to ratify so many international human rights treaties — among them those concerning the rights of women and children and a protocol of the Convention Against Torture that allows for international inspection — "African-Americans do not have the possibility to bring their cases or individual complaints to regional and international bodies when they have exhausted all domestic remedies at the state and federal level, as they are not party to the protocols which would allow them to bring complaints."
"Furthermore, international human rights treaties cannot be invoked in national courts as there is no enabling legislation," the group added.
Also in attendance was Baltimore attorney and activist Stephanie Franklin.
"People see us as very different," she said of black people in the US. "They see us as not facing the same issues. But we are. It's poverty, healthcare issues, cultural issues, housing issues, environmental justice issues, reproductive justice issues — clearly, criminal justice issues. It runs the gamut."
"Now the question is what is the US government going to do with the recommendations," she added, "and how we as activists of civil society are going to hold the US accountable for all the human rights violations that are happening to black people in this country."