UWI Professor led UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to adopt new General Recommendation

The United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), has adopted General Recommendation 36 (GR36), which aims to prevent and combat racial profiling by law enforcement officials. The document is the result of two years of consultation, and the final drafting and adoption were led by Professor Verene Shepherd of The University of the West Indies (The UWI).

Shepherd, who is a Professor of Social History, and Director of the Centre for Reparation Research at The UWI and former Director of the Institute for Gender & Development Studies (IGDS) inherited the task from former CERD member, Mr. Pastor Murillo.

Racial profiling by law enforcement officials has been a regular complaint of historically marginalised groups, particularly people of African descent, and especially when they are minorities in the countries in which they live. This threat has been brought into sharp focus by the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that began in the United States, but have spread to countries all over the world. GR36 was adopted on the last day of the 102nd session of CERD on November 24, 2020, which took place virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions. Its recommendations urge States and law enforcement officials to guard against the misuse of digital technology, facial recognition software, and artificial intelligence (AI).

According to Professor Shepherd, “Law enforcement officials often claim that these databases are for use in the prevention and detection of crime, acts of terrorism, immigration violations, etc., but big data and AI tools may reproduce and reinforce already existing biases and lead to even more discriminatory practices.”

The term ‘racial profiling’ is not found in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). However, CERD maintains that while the above-mentioned technology may facilitate crime detection and prevention, there is an unacceptable risk that the data collected and the technology implemented can be used for racial profiling and other forms of bias.

In its recommendation, the UN Human Rights Committee expresses concern that vulnerable groups are targeted, including people of African descent, migrants, asylum seekers, Indigenous Peoples, and religious and ethnic minorities. In addition to CERD, several other international human rights mechanisms support the view that these forms of bias are a clear violation of international human rights law.

The recommendations of GR36 fall under seven headings: legislative and policy measures; human rights education and training; recruitment measures; community policing; disaggregated data; accountability; and artificial intelligence.

Specifically, GR36 advocates the thorough investigation of reported incidents of racial profiling in accordance with international human rights standards. If, upon prosecution, perpetrators are convicted, the appropriate sanctions and penalties should be applied, and the victims compensated.

The full General Recommendation can be found online on the CERD’s website.