5 July 2021

It was an honour to meet the other families, like Breonna Taylor’s mother and the brother of George Floyd. But it was also striking that the patterns and our experiences were similar.

 – Marcia Rigg, campaigner and sister of Sean Rigg

The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has published a damning report calling on states including the UK to “end impunity” for human rights violations against Black people by police officers and reverse the “cultures of denial” towards systemic racism.  

Bachelet said, “We need a transformative approach that tackles the interconnected areas that drive racism, and lead to repeated, wholly avoidable, tragedies like the death of George Floyd.”

“I am calling on all States to stop denying, and start dismantling, racism; to end impunity and build trust; to listen to the voices of people of African descent; and to confront past legacies and deliver redress.”

The High Commissioner began work on this report after the Human Rights Council – made up by states including the UK – condemned the racially discriminatory and violent practices perpetrated by law enforcement agencies against Africans and people of African descent, following the death of George Floyd in the USA.

The analysis of 190 deaths of Black people during or following contact with law enforcement officers across the world found that police officers are rarely held accountable in these cases due to “a lack of independent and robust oversight” as well as a reported “lack of cooperation by police officers in investigations and attempts in some instances to proactively undermine accountability processes.”

INQUEST has been actively involved in providing evidence to inform the report, drawing from decades of experience working with bereaved families who have lost their loved ones following or during contact with law enforcement officers in the UK.

The report’s conclusions were informed directly by the experience of bereaved families in the UK, with one of seven case studies from around the world focussing on the case of Kevin Clarke. Kevin was a 35 year old Black man, who was experiencing a mental health crisis when he died following prolonged restraint by Metropolitan Police officers in South London on 9 March 2018. An inquest last year found serious system wide failures.

Marcia Rigg, member of INQUEST’s Family Reference Group, also shared her long fight for justice and accountability in a closed consultation with the UN High Commissioner.

The report says Kevin Clarke’s death is “illustrative” of a context where, when acting as first responders to people in mental health crisis, “police often fail to identify the victims as individuals in distress and in need of rights-based mental health support”. Instead, they found racial bias and stereotypes compounded with disability-based stereotypes appear to lead law enforcement officials to perceive the victim as ‘dangerous’, overriding considerations of the individual’s safety and well-being and of delivery of the appropriate care and basic life support.”

Tellecia Strachan, the sister of Kevin Clarke, said: “Kevin was loved by many and is dearly missed. In his memory we want to see real change. We welcome this deeply critical report from the UN.

 We are grateful to the UN High Commissioner and her team for reflecting our concerns in this report. Particularly the systemic racism in policing, which often overlaps with failures in responding to Black people in mental health crisis, and dehumanising treatment of people in need of support.

 After Kevin’s death, and the many others highlighted in this report, it is clear that having police as first responders to people in mental health crisis is not appropriate. Specialist mental health services must be better funded and equipped to prevent and respond to people in crisis.

 The UK government must act on the recommendations of this report to ensure there is not another Kevin Clarke, Sean Rigg, or Seni Lewis.”

The UN’s call for a “systemic approach to systemic racism” is in stark contrast to the British government’s controversial attempt to minimise the impact of institutional racism in its Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities report, released in April. The Commission’s analysis instead called for remedies for racial “disparities” that focus on the individual rather than institutional failure.

INQUEST has welcomed the report. Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST: “While the UK government is explicit in its denial of systemic racism, this UN report confronts them with the evidence. The disproportionate number of Black men who die after the use of lethal force and neglect by the state is at the sharp end of a continuum of violence and racism. There is a pattern of systemic racism in our policing and criminal justice system.

Dismantling racism requires institutions and individuals to confront it, from Government, to police, to health and social services. State violence and racism are global human rights issues, and action is long overdue.

The UK’s record is put clearly under the spotlight in this report, yet the government’s response has been disingenuous. This week the UK and other states are negotiating a resolution that will set out steps to take the report recommendations forward. We are concerned by reports that the government is seeking to water down proposals that we believe would make this a rigorous and meaningful process.”

The report is being discussed at the ongoing UN Human Rights Council this July, where member states agree actions to take forward the findings.