We Can’t Breathe: UN OHCHR Experts Issue Joint Statement and Call for Reparations

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No one on this planet could have failed to see the 8 minutes and 46 seconds in which George Floyd was killed.

The United States signed the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1966, ratifying the same in 1994.  Article 2 of ICERD contains fundamental obligations assumed by parties to ICERD, which are further elaborated in specific provisions in Articles 5, 6, and 7 of the same treaty:

“Article 2

1. States Parties condemn racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races, and, to this end: (a) Each State Party undertakes to engage in no act or practice of racial discrimination against persons, groups of persons or institutions and to ensure that all public authorities and public institutions, national and local, shall act in conformity with this obligation;

(b) Each State Party undertakes not to sponsor, defend or support racial discrimination by any persons or organizations;

(c) Each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists;

(d) Each State Party shall prohibit and bring to an end, by all appropriate means, including legislation as required by circumstances, racial discrimination by any persons, group or organization;

(e) Each State Party undertakes to encourage, where appropriate, integrationist multiracial organizations and movements and other means of eliminating barriers between races, and to discourage anything which tends to strengthen racial division.

2. States Parties shall, when the circumstances so warrant, take, in the social, economic, cultural and other fields, special and concrete measures to ensure the adequate development and protection of certain racial groups or individuals belonging to them, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms. These measures shall in no case entail as a con sequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.”

The United States’ fundamental obligations under Article 2 of ICERD merit serious consideration, especially when one recalls pending (and long overdue) domestic legislation initiatives in the United States, such as House Resolution 40 on establishing a committee to study and develop reparations proposals for African-Americans, the pending House Resolution 35 or the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching bill seeking to turn lynching into a federal crime in the United States,  as well as the 2016 Report of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to the United States of America containing recommendations for human rights reparations.

Today, all of the independent experts of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – including our own Contributing Editor Michael Fakhri (Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) – released their joint statement on systemic racism in the United States.  It is particularly significant not just for its authoritativeness, but for its central emphasis on reparative intervention for contemporary and historical racial injustice.  For those unable to access the link, we are reproducing the text below in full.

Statement on the Protests against Systemic Racism in the United States 

June 5, 2020

This statement is issued by independent experts* of the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council:

The recent killing of George Floyd has shocked many in the world, but it is the lived reality of black people across the United States. The uprising nationally is a protest against systemic racism that produces state-sponsored racial violence, and licenses impunity for this violence. The uprising also reflects public frustration and protest against the many other glaring manifestations of systemic racism that have been impossible to ignore in the past months, including the racially disparate death rate and socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disparate and discriminatory enforcement of pandemic-related restrictions. This systemic racism is gendered. The protests the world is witnessing, are a rejection of the fundamental racial inequality and discrimination that characterize life in the United States for black people, and other people of color.

The response of the President of the United States to the protests at different junctures has included threating more state violence using language directly associated with racial segregationists from the nation’s past, who worked hard to deny black people fundamental human rights. We are deeply concerned that the nation is on the brink of a militarized response that reenacts the injustices that have driven people to the streets to protest.

Expressions of solidarity—nationally and internationally—are important but they are not enough. Many in the United States and abroad are finally acknowledging that the problem is not a few bad apples, but instead the problem is the very way that economic, political and social life are structured in a country that prides itself in liberal democracy, and with the largest economy in the world. The true demonstration of whether Black lives do indeed matter remains to be seen in the steps that public authorities and private citizens take in response to the concrete demands that protestors are making. One example is nationwide calls to rollback staggering police and military budgets, and for reinvestment of those funds in healthcare, education, housing, pollution prevention and other social structures, especially in communities of color that have been impoverished and terrorized by discriminatory state intervention.

Reparative intervention for historical and contemporary racial injustice is urgent, and required by international human rights law. This is a time for action and not just talk, especially from those who need not fear for their lives or their livelihoods because of their race or ethnicity. Globally, people of African descent and others have had to live the truths of systemic racism, and the associated pain, often without meaningful recourse as they navigate their daily lives. International leaders that have spoken out in solidarity with protestors, and with black people in the United States should also take this opportunity to address structural forms of racial and ethnic injustice in their own nations, and within the international system itself.

UN experts:


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Nicolas Boeglin says

June 7, 2020

Dear Professor Desierto

Many thanks for this very valuable note on this recent collective call of UN experts.

It it also important to recall that CERD Committee, in 2014, when examining US official report, adopted several concluding observations related to police practices: see in particular, among many others, concluding observations 8 (Racial profiling and illegal surveillance) and 17 (Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials) available here:


It would be very interesting to see how many police forces and internal regulations of security forces changed since 2014 in order to comply with CERD Committee´observations.

Sincerely yours

Nicolas Boeglin