Inclusive societies and anti-discrimination must become the new normal.
Even amidst the unprecedented Coronavirus health crisis, global protests over police brutality and accountability have put racial bias in law enforcement and more generally under the spotlight. Domenica Ghidei Biidu, Deputy Human Rights Commissioner at the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights and Vice Chair of the Council of Europe’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance talks about the many issues that still need to be resolved so that all people, no matter their race or ethnic background, can be treated equally.
Hello. Following global protests over police brutality, accountability and racial bias in law enforcement and beyond, it seems that some positive change is taking place. Joining me from the Netherlands is Domenica Ghidei Biidu, Vice Chair of the Council of Europe’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, and she is also Deputy Human Rights Commissioner at the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. Berlin,as we know has passed Germany’s first anti-state discrimination law. France has banned a controversial technic for detaining people known as the choke hold.
Has Europe woken up to racism - not least when it relates to Black people and encounters with law enforcement?
Domenica Ghidei Biidu: Well, I hope so. These are important signs and for example, concerning the Berlin legislation, I don’t think it is something which was just set up now. It took years and years to come to this point, so, I’m very happy they have. It gives a basic structure in which actions can be taken to do something against racism, so that is a very important point which we have to applaud. And what has been done by the French is also very important, it was important that this measure has been taken. The issue is how can we train the police, not only by forbidding them to take certain actions, but the thing is that we have to create an awareness for people, for police officers. They have to abide to Human Rights measures, that they should not take certain actions and also to understand how their racialized upbringing and thinking should be dismantled. It will take time, and that will take efforts and I think it is very important.
In terms of police training as you mentioned there, among some ECRI’s recommendations to Europe : more officers from Black and traditionally non-European backgrounds; independent bodies to investigate alleged acts of anti-discrimination by police. What would your message to governments be on these other important issues?
DGB: Blue is safety and that’s what we want to reach. One way is when there is diversity in the police but at the same time, it is not enough. Diversity is on the symbolic level, we need to have a situation where human rights are law-abiding officers who are aware and that the leadership of the police force is really creating a police organization in which you have very clear norms, regulation on your attitudes and on your actions and accountability. If something happens, then the independent body should really look at the incident and give their opinion if this has been a discriminatory act, and also reasonable suspicion must be the starting point of an investigation and not racial profiling. These are some of the recommendations we made. Also, to build trust and confidence you must have dialogue before an outside conflict so there should be a dialogue between communities where the police are working so that the police are not foreign to the communities they are operating in. There must be trust and it does not come over night or by regulation. It means you have to build trust and when something happens you have to come back again, even if there is stress, even if there is something happening. That’s the human condition, which is not based on legislation. It has to do with truthfully and inherently working on connection and cohesion.
Now, is there a danger that anti-discrimination issues will be – as we say - swept under the carpet when these anti-racism protests around the continent go away?
DBG: I hope not. I think they have shown that, for the first time you see in Europe now, that these protests are not only by Black people, by people of different descent or by Muslims. There are also white young people, they are saying “not in my name, this is not the future I want to live in”. So, this shows that there is an awareness coming, so I’m hopeful. At the same time, we must work on the institutional dismantlement of discrimination and that will take time, it needs really working on it, on an everyday basis. It is like a gardener, you have to take away the weed which is racism and build something really solid, not a plant that will only last one season – but trees which will need water and work together and that is an effort from everyone, especially from the politicians. So the discourse must be changed and racially based profiling should be stopped. And when something happens, we have to do some organization or searches to be able to work on it. So, those are very important points. And we have, of course, legislation which is very important and that should be placed in its place and also the judiciary has an important role in this. This is something we try to do all together; it is not something you can do on your own.
The Commission that you work for, ECRI makes reports on countries and issues recommendations, how confident are you that ECRI members will be taking up these measures that you’re talking about?
DBG: Well, when we do the country report, we go to the country and we talk to the officials of the government and then when the report is finalized, we send it. The idea is also to go back to the country many times and to have dialogues with civil society, with the government and with NGOs. And the advantage of our reports is that civil society organizations can use the report - in which ECRI has advised a government to take certain measures – and put pressure on their own local and national government to stimulate or to make demands for changes. That is how we work and when we are going for the next cycle, we are always asking what has the change been after the last report. We are now in our 6th cycle, so we are not there only for a short time, we are really keeping tied and coming back and asking on the implementations of our recommendations.
And finally then, you’ve partly alluded to this already, some in Europe are saying that the COVID-19 situation we’ve found ourselves in over the past few months is giving us the opportunity to build back better, to find a new “normal”. How hopeful are you now that anti-discrimination will now become central to this new world?
DBG: I am a dreamer, not only I dream but I work to realize my dreams, so I hope that is going to happen. At the same time, I’m realistic – it is not just going to happen by itself. So, even though the legislation has been there the whole time, what we need is the possibility that we work on it, that inclusive society and anti-discrimination is going to be the new normal. But the people who are going to work on it and the people who have been working on it, around it the whole time. So, there must be some searches on how we have done it until now and what we need to do differently because we have racialized societies in which there are many stereotypes on different communities - on Black people, on LGBTI, on Muslims, on Jews. So, all these prejudices make it very difficult to say ‘let’s change things’, it is not going to happen overnight. We have to work on it, but we must work on it every day and embodiment of our ideas is very important.