UN rights chief condemns 'structural racism' in US

by Nina LARSON
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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (pictured February 2020) insisted that the grievances at the heart of the protests that have erupted in hundreds of US cities needed to be heard and addressed if the country

The UN rights chief on Wednesday decried "structural racism" in the United States, and voiced alarm at the "unprecedented assault" on journalists covering protests across the country after George Floyd's death in custody.

Michelle Bachelet insisted that the grievances at the heart of the protests that have erupted in hundreds of US cities needed to be heard and addressed if the country was to move forward.

"The voices calling for an end to the killings of unarmed African Americans need to be heard," she said in a statement.

"The voices calling for an end to police violence need to be heard. And the voices calling for an end to the endemic and structural racism that blights US society need to be heard."

Her comments came as thousands across the United States defied curfews for another night of rallies against police racism following the death of Floyd, an unarmed African American who stopped breathing as a police officer was filmed kneeling on his neck.

Bachelet stressed the need for clear and constructive leadership to bring the country through the crisis.

"Especially during a crisis, a country needs its leaders to condemn racism unequivocally; for them to reflect on what has driven people to boiling point; to listen and learn; and to take actions that truly tackle inequalities," she said.

US President Donald Trump has meanwhile rejected the traditional presidential role of healer in the crisis.

He has vowed to order a military crackdown on the once-in-a-generation widespread violent protests and has rejected criticism over his use of force to break up a peaceful rally.

The statement from the UN rights office Wednesday pointed to "credible reports of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officers" during the protests.

- 'Unprecedented assault on journalists' -

Tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as pepper balls have been fired at demonstrators and journalists "who did not pose an imminent threat of serious injury", it said.

Bachelet voiced particular alarm at reports that at least 200 journalists had been attacked or arrested while covering the protests, despite having press credentials clearly visible.

"What has been happening is an unprecedented assault on journalists," she said, pointing out that "in some cases they have been attacked or even arrested while on air."

"It is all the more shocking given that freedom of expression and of the media are fundamental principles in the US, central to the country's identity," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

"Reporters must be able to do their important work free from attacks or repression."

Bachelet also called on the protesters to refrain from violence, lamenting that several people, including a federal law enforcement agent, had died in the unrest, while dozens had been injured and numerous properties destroyed.

"Violence, looting and the destruction of property and neighbourhoods won't solve the problem of police brutality and entrenched discrimination," she said.

And she voiced deep concern at statements seeking to label protesters as terrorists.

"There can be no doubt as to what or who is 'behind' these protests," Bachelet said, pointing out that "we have seen thousands upon thousands of peaceful protesters, of diverse backgrounds, taking to the streets to demand their rights and to call for change."

She acknowledged that "structural racism and police violence" are found across the world.

But she warned that "the anger we have seen in the US, erupting as COVID-19 exposes glaring inequalities in society, shows why far-reaching reforms and inclusive dialogue are needed there to break the cycle of impunity for unlawful killings by police and racial bias in policing."

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (pictured February 2020) insisted that the grievances at the heart of the protests that have erupted in hundreds of US cities needed to be heard and addressed if the country

Protesters gather to demonstrate the death of George Floyd near the US Capitol on June 3, 2020, in Washington, DC