Home » Side event: Eliminating Structural Racism against Africans and people of African Descent in drug policy legal frameworks and practice

Side event: Eliminating Structural Racism against Africans and people of African Descent in drug policy legal frameworks and practice

Organised by the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) Asociación Civil with the support of the International Service for Human Rights

Luciana Pol, Senior Fellow Security Policy & Human Rights CELS: Customary comment in these events is to say that this is a timely debate. However, in this case, we cannot say that because it’s not timely; it’s actually one that we should have been holding 20 years ago. This is actually a very long overdue debate. For many years, drug policymaking has been disconnected from the human rights impacts and outcome that drug control was generated: militarisation, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, generalised lack of access to health and harm reduction are some examples. With UNGASS 2016, there has been substantive progress documenting human rights issues of drug control, including two reports by the OHCHR and a number of organisations across the globe. Also special procedures analysing concrete aspects of human rights concerns related to drug policy, including the arbitrary detention report that’s one of the latest, but also impacts on women. In 2020-21, there was a relevant process at the UN HUman Rights system that illuminated drug policy impacts on human rights – Agenda on structural racism and police brutality. Following the death of Geroge Floyd, the HRC requested a report. It reveals that people of African descent are disproportionately affected by policing and criminalisation. Drug control feeds into this. Three cases are highlighted. First – Policing of minor offences, like traffic stops and stops and searches. Second – Law enforcement officials intervene as first responders in mental health crises. Third – Special operations by police. All of these situations are related to drug policy and carried out in the war on drugs. How can we take this opportunity to eliminate racism, particularly in relation to implementing drug policy. We have an amazing panel and we’re now going to the sources, as we’re hearing from the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva, who led on preparing the report by the Human Rights Council, which set out an agenda for transformative justice and equality. This report stands out for its tone, it’s emphatic: volumes and volumes of recommendations have been made, action is needed now!

Sara Hamood, Team Leader, Racial Justice Team, OHCHR: I’d like to start by widening the lens of the title of this event and sitauting structural racism of african people and people of african descnet. Taht context is, as you mentioned, oHCHR has elaborated on this report, But it’s one of an alarming picture of systemwide disproportionate and discriminatory impact of people of African descent in their interactions with law enforcement and criminal justice system. This includes biases associating Blackness and criminality. And people of African descent experience this in all aspects of their lives. Numerous deaths were identified. These happen during or following contact with law enforcement in different contexts. You outline the three standout contexts: minor offences, mental health crises, first responders, special police ops in the context of the war on drugs and gang-related operations. As you say, many of them touch on the issue being discussed today. Let me unpack a bit further. Particularly the third category. Through the in depth research we did to prepare the report we found deaths of people of african descent occur in the context of larger scale operations in the war on drugs and against gangs. These happen in places where people of African descent live. Stereotypes and biases associate these communities with criminality, which appear to influence the conduct of the operations; police are rarely prosecuted because authorities tend to argue that these deaths occur in the context of confrontations. The presumption is one of guilt. Militarization of law enforcement too, where military personnel and equipment facilitates a rapid escalation in the use of force, notably in the war on drugs. And it shows militarised policing disproportionately impacts racialised communities. It doesn’t increase public safety or improve relations with the community. The data we found from different countries, official data but also from NGOs show people of african descent are affected by excessively punitive drug policy: more likely to be in touch with the criminal justice system and being harmed by it. Also disproportion on poor people, where people of African descent are also overrepresented. This led the HCHR to propose an agenda for transformative change focusing on the rights of people of african descent, it includes 21 action points on law enforcement and other areas: discriminatory impact of law enforcement o be addressed by measures including drug policy reform in light with human rights standards, reimagining policing implementing community driven models to protect and serve all members of community without discrimination – including drug policy legal frameworks and resposnes. Also restrict racial profiling through reforms. Provide redress for victims and families. In all these efforts, disaggregated data is critical. This data should be used to analyse the effect of drug policy to drive and cease the manifestations of systemic racism in this area. This agenda brings to the fore that the voices of people of African descent are heard and they are concerned. Legislative and policy responses must count on the participation of marginalised groups. Their solutions must be central. As should be civil society engagement. Drug policy legal frameworks are a reflection of our societies. We need a multipronged approach: targeted interventions to eliminate discriminatory outcomes in drug control but also dismantle systemic racism in all institutions and across society. Such an approach would assist UN Member States to fulfil human rights commitments in the UNGASS 2016.

Salimah Hankins, Coordinator of the Anti-Racism Coalition: Our coalition sees it as its central role that voices of people affected by human rights violations are centred. Our coalition includes 50+ CSOs, people impacted, people in social movements worldwide. More broadly, looking at the legacies of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade and making sure that is not lost in conversations. Transformative change happening in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd brought to the light that there’s a George Floyd in every community on a regular basis, and our communities are mobilising to address this and prevent this. There’s a historic urgent debate in 2020 following this death. Members of this Coalition were part of that push. And then came up with a strategic systemic plan to think what kinds of mechanisms would centre people most impacted. For us, that means that we’re procedurally and substantively aligned with our priorities and needs. That everyone’s voice is heard. That there’s an understanding on both sides, to make sure that the experts and people working within UN spaces understand how even small procedural things (like meetings with translation) really impact civil society engagement. This Coalition is making sure there’s proper accountability and accessibility. The Coalition is working to make sure that our priorities regarding procedures and substantive aspects of these mechanisms are in alignment with Coalition members’ demands. We had our first meeting where members of the Coalition expressed what their priorities were, and that the lived experiences of these families are centred.

Ojeaku Nwabuzo, Senior Research Officer at European Network Against Racism: I want to talk about the history of racial profiling in Europe to highlight these manifestations in Europe. I will try to speak of the complexity of racism in drug policy and policing, acknowledging it’s quite complex so this will be a brief overview. And I want to highlight how these concepts create systemic racism. And about our obsession with carceral logics pervading institutions and their interaction with Black people. I’d start referencing the HCHR’s report last year, which shows the disproportionate impact of drug-related punishment on people of African descent. We have not focused so much about the links between drug policy, but we have focused on racial profiling’s impact on Black people. And how these practices affect the relationship between authorities and Black people. This isn’t new and we have documented it for years. Within the EU, the Policing, Crime Prevent, COVID-related restrictions, illegal pushbacks, etc. and this affects racialised groups in disproportionate ways. Black and North African people are 20x more likely to be stopped by policepeople in France. Similar instances of stops and raids. In Belgium, reports of violence regarding strip searches. Although police officers are only allowed to carry out these operations if ‘strong suspicions’, these suspicions aren’t challenged. Racialised groups are more exposed to detention and deportation. From other countries, during COVID, African-descent men are more likely to be stopped by the police and threatened with deportation and told to stay home. Ethnic profile in the criminal justice system – in Greece, Black people are more likely to be prosecuted. Several numbers and statistics across Europe when it comes to imprisonment. In particular in the UK, where there’s specific data and the disproportion is clear. Convictions for cannabis disproportionately affect Black people. It’s really important to mention childQ. This dehumanising treatment was allowed because this child was Black. It’s an example of racism by the police in schools. It shows police treat Black children as adults. There’s a clear racialisation of certain crimes and offending behaviour. Drugs, drug dealing, etc. Are policing and incarceration necessary for these behaviours? We have also to think of the technologies of surveillance and violence deployed in certain neighbourhoods depending on their demographic. The HCHR’s report speaks to the need to change drug policies. And we need a transformative justice approach. We need to divest from policing and invest in communities. Communities know what they need. Address challenges in society, not through the criminal justice system.

Fransérgio Goulart, Coordinador Ejecutivo de la Iniciativa Direito à Memória e Justiça Racial: The context is one where we have a government led by a President that’s racist, homophobic. I would first like to quote something said by an Afrodescendant research woman in our team, Lucia Xavier, when I asked her what was the priority of the Black movement in Brazil, she replied that the priority of the Black Movement in Brazil is still to be considered human. We’re still struggling to be considered human. Black bodies, lives still don’t have the freedom to fulfil their potential. This must be the case in other countries represented. We struggle to counter the brutality of militarised police. The Baixada territory according to official data in Brazil is 70% Afrodescendants suffering human rights violations daily. Most of this territory is dominated by paramilitary groups. Between 2010-2020, 16,000 people murdered. 33% due to the intervention of government police. 30% of women murdered. 33% of bodies in the region are from Baixada murders. We try to systematise that official data focusing on the epistemology of this perspective of Afrodescendants to create the right narrative to reflect the reality that they face in their territories. We deal with a historic structural and systemic racism in the context of the war on drugs. In order to keep fighting this war the state generates more killings. There’s also profits associated with the war on drugs. We underestimate the participation of the weapon and arms industry, the private sector, the militarisation of police, which is a source of profit for a capitalist society. In 2021, thousands of people were murdered because of the war on drugs. When we analyse the data, almost 80% of victims are Afrodescendants. As it was mentioned, 2 years ago we opened a lawsuit, a request to the supreme court of brazil, we were the first Coalition of NGOs together with Conectas able to get this judicial order restricting action of police within the context of the COVID pandemic. There’s a subtle clause saying unless in the exception of urgent matters. So there was a reduction of killings, but very briefly after the government of the state created the figure of ‘exceptional cases’ – Apprehension of drugs and weapons. And then we verified 415 operations took place, and that is within the context of a judicial court. These operations were commended by the military police because they had the justification of fighting drugs. The drug seizures were ridiculously small and no dangerous weapons were found. In no way that can be a justification for brutality. But this leads to torture, disproportionate use of force, murders. So, even when we have the context of an institutional, judicial decision, the branch of the military police is free to inflict violence. Religious groups in our communities reinforce the ideology behind the war on drugs and the state’s punitive narrative. Thousands of mothers, majoritarily Black, loose their children in extrajudicial killings. That harms our mental health. This is like a civil war. We need care for these women and mothers. In the context of law enforcement, this is the reality across the territory. In Rio, one of the highest budget for public policy is that of the police. We have currently the highest and most abundant resources. This doesn’t go into training, but equipment, tanks, cars, weaponry, etc. This should be central to the debate. We must defund militarised police all over the globe. The Supreme Court, there’s a bill against the criminalisation of drug use, super important to this debate. Within the context of the war on drugs we must think of those sent to prisons for ridiculous amounts of drugs on them. They should be released. Sentences are much more severe than white offenders. Because Black people, in the eyes of Brazilian police, are drug dealers. We must implement external control of training of police officers. We cooperate closely with social movements in Jamaica. They have the same coalition over there, our voices, that of victims and families, should be heard. Black bodies carry the memory of trauma. So it’s important to build memorials. This is education. We need to insist on the fact we’ve been making mistakes and they cannot be made again. Let’s think of the democracy of abolition – Institutions are not equipped to respond to our needs.

Luciana Pol: Excellent discussions about diverting funds and state efforts aware from purchasing militarised equipment that kill, but also the topic of policies of memory – this is a very valid point. State policies in Argentina, for instance, to memorialise killings by the State can contribute to healing and build a new generation capable of interpret the past and learning for the future.

Final comments

Sara Hamood: It was important to us to capture experiences with an intersectional perspective. We relied on engagement with community groups and civil society. A majority of the people killed by police are men. There are, however, a number of women also affected by this phenomenon, who lose their lives as victims or caught up in police operations. We also spoke to many families and the majority of the people were mothers, sisters, who have lost their relatives and they’re at the forefront of fighting for truth and justice. We tried to lift this up in the report, and highlight how across jurisdictions, the experiences of families are actually very similar. I also want to highlight law enforcement mechanisms – The international independent expert mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement: new body established further to the report and HRC resolution discussed before. Three expert members appointed and who started their work this year. Opportunities for engagement with this mechanism. They will produce a first report in September of this year and present it to the Council. The High Commissioner will present a parallel report too at that September session. There will be an Interactive Dialogue. And directly affected individuals will be able to participate. The idea is bringin the voices and lives experiences of people into the centre. So that the solutions we propose are actually based on the lived experiences of people.

Salimah Hankins: Very important for our Coalition to have a gender analysis. Most active members are women. Disproportionately the deaths are men, we need to expand what it means to be a victim/impacted – for instance, what are the mental health implications. Also impact on LGBTQ+ folks.

Ojeaku Nwabuzo: If we’re talking about gender and policing, we also have to talk about how misogynistic police are across the globe. I’m from the UK. I have that lens. Discussions are happening quite intensely around this issue in the UK. Police officers are often involved in sexual assault and domestic abuse. There was once case study where one victim felt that they were sexually assaulted during a search. The police causes harm in this way to women.

Fransérgio Goulart: I’ll highlight the leadership of women in this struggle. It is fundamental to include women because they’re also harmed by the deaths. We hope that recommendations of international bodies urge the reduction of policing and the absurd amount of killings that they inflict in the context of the war on drugs and law enforcement.

Luciana Pol: Just a last comment on thinking structurally. Racism is embedded in the structures of our societies for centuries. Everybody, especially white people and the institutions we belong to have been participating willingly or unwillingly in the perpetuation of racism. It is time to take that into an actual reflection on how to change institutions from the inside. And that goes to human rights organisations, institutions like the UN, governments, etc.

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