7 December 2015 – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, saying he was struck by the “enormity of the task” over the next decade to reverse five centuries of discrimination against the 150 million people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean, has urged the region to draw on “the untapped potential in hitherto invisible communities.”
The top UN human rights official made those remarks in a speech to the first Meeting of Latin America and the Caribbean on the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) held in Brasilia, Brazil, last week and which bought together States, regional organizations, national human rights institutions, equality bodies and civil society, particularly those of people of African descent, as well as UN bodies from the region.
“I am struck by the enormity of the task before us,” Zeid said.
“Ten years to reverse five centuries of structural discrimination? Racial discrimination that has deep roots grown in colonialism and slavery and nourished daily with fear, poverty and violence, roots that aggressively infiltrate every aspect of life – from access to food and education to physical integrity, to participation in decisions that fundamentally affect one’s life,” he said.
“A decade is such a short time,” he noted.
MZeid called on States to honour their commitments and obligations under international human rights law and use all the tools at their disposal to make concrete progress in advancing the rights of Afro-descendants.
The tools include international human rights treaties, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) on eradicating racism and xenophobia, as well as the framework provided by the UN General Assembly for the International Decade.
The themes for the Decade are: Recognition, Justice and Development.
“Today, there are more than 150 million people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean – about 30 per cent of the population. Yet Afro-descendants throughout much of the region are almost invisible in the halls of power – economic, academic, professional or political, at local or national levels. High rates of inequality persist,” he said.
At the end of the meeting on Friday [4 December 2015], the delegates adopted a declaration which recalls the UN General Assembly’s Programme of Activities of the International Decade and reaffirms their commitment to the full implementation of the Durban Declaration at national, regional and global levels.
States also pledged to adopt affirmative action policies to alleviate and remedy inequalities in the enjoyment of human rights in access to education and employment, in line with the particularities of each country.
“Let us seize this chance to tap the untapped potential in hitherto invisible communities. Let us pledge to use these 10 years to turn a corner,” the High Commissioner said.
Debunking the myth of racial hierarchy, United Nations experts on racial discrimination on 3 November 2015 said that it is imperative to deconstruct, on a global scale, the ideological myth of a superior race and the resulting conviction of a superior culture.
Addressing a special event at UN Headquarters on Confronting the Silence: Perspectives and Dialogue on Structural Racism against people of African Descent Worldwide, Mireille Fanon-Mendes, Chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said that the attacks on human dignity are elaborated due to “supposed hierarchy of races and cultures and do not concern only one or [another], but the entire international community.”
The discussion was organized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the co-sponsorship of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the UN Department of Public Information, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, Black Lives Matter, and Amnesty International USA.
Among other speakers, the event featured welcoming remarks by Ivan Šimonović, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, who recalled that the gathering was being held in the context of the International Decade for People of African Descent, who, he said are a distinct group that regrettably faces racism and structural discrimination, and continue to face impediments to the realization of their rights.
“Slavery and the slave trade are the basis of the widespread and systemic manifestations of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia…that we see people of African descent face today,” he said, adding that colonialism reinforced the challenges and they were further reinforced by, among others, modern day social and economic marginalization.
In her remarks, Fanon-Mendes said that in addition to historical consequences [people of African descent] had to face, they and Africans – with colonialism and economic migration or because of war¬¬ – are the only ones subject to discrimination based on skin colour; a biological parameter that completely escapes the control of the victim of this ostracism.
She added: “The hierarchy of races is scientifically false, morally condemnable, and socially unjust.”
She urged Member States to reverse the “process of invisibility and inferiority” that the people of African descent face and to acknowledge their legitimate aspirations.
Fanon-Mendes said that coordination of Member States and civil society will help in ensuring that “the legacy of this terrible history” is overcome. She further called for historicizing of slave trade in in order to achieve an assumed and shared history and to form an accurate sequence of the order of construction of racism.
“To question the political and social construction of race, including its role at the time of the abolition of slavery [during which the freemen] had no other choice than to continue working on the plantations of their former masters, is an essential step if we want to emerge from a traumatic past,” she explained.
She also stressed the need to deconstruct all assumed racial myths by “flushing out” any factor that contributes to inequality and structural discrimination.
Another keynote speaker, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Harry Belafonte, recalled his time with legendary African American actor, Paul Robeson, who had said artist are the gatekeepers of truth; humanity’s moral compass.
As such, Belafonte continued, he sought to use the arts as a tool to bring the human family together.
Continuing, he said that while the “mighty alliance” of the Second World War was supposed to have brought an end to fascism and intolerance, “one serious flaw was that the Allies were as guilty of racial oppression as was Hitler.”
Decades of racial oppression, discrimination and intolerance, before and since the war, have meant that “most people of colour know very little about the diaspora…the depth of us as African descendants, is not known one to the other.
Yet, Belafonte stressed that the United Nations is “the place to sit and have a conversation about settling the affairs of the cruelty of racism and classicism,” and he looked forward to the discussions that were ahead and the presentations of the other speakers and participants.
Also addressing the event, Mutuma Ruteere, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance said the grave issue of racial profiling across the world “impairs the fundamental rights of individuals and groups and expands on discrimination already suffered as a result of ethnic origin or minority status.”
He emphasized that racial and ethnic profiling is prohibited under international human rights law, as it violates multiple human rights, including the right to live free from discrimination, the right to equality before the law, the right to personal freedom and security and the right to the presumption of innocence.
“The manifestation of racial profiling has often been observed in stop and check operations which in some places disproportionately target minority groups. In Europe for instance, minorities including Roma people suffer unequal levels of stops by police. Similarly people of African descent have historically been subjected to practices of racial profiling,” said Ruteere.
He also remarked that newer patterns of racial and ethnic profiling have surfaced since Member States took measures to counter terrorism in the recent years.
“Migrants and minority groups have been particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of these new law enforcement practices. In the context of immigration, official border crossings and hubs of transportation, such as airports, railway stations, and bus depots, have been consistent places where racial and ethnic profiling takes place,” Ruteere explained.
He expressed concern at the creation of “risk profiles” for specific ethic groups by law enforcement agencies, as this generates fear “that racial and ethnic profiling may become a regularized and permanent fixture of immigration and border control management systems around the world.”
Additionally, he also said that racial profiling in administration of justice has led to “unjust and disproportionate punishment of individuals of traditionally discriminated against groups including People of African descent.”
He said that such practices have led to criminalization and handing out harsher punishment for using certain kinds of recreational drugs, which disproportionately affect minorities.
“Studies have identified correlations between racial status and harsher criminal sentences, and evidence from different countries around the world shows that implicit biases have noticeable effects on criminal investigations,” said Ruteere.
At the same time, Ruteere observed that a number of Member States have made efforts to tackle racial profiling through the adoption of laws and policies, the establishment of adequate institutional frameworks such as oversight and equality bodies; and the implementation of training and awareness-raising initiatives.
“I also recommend that States gather law enforcement data, including statistics disaggregated by ethnicity and race, which are essential in order to prove the existence and the extent of racial and ethnic profiling,” said Ruteere, stressing that more should be done to effectively address the issue of racial profiling.
Lastly, he stressed that investigative oversight bodies should have the authority to address allegations of racial and ethnic profiling, and make practical recommendations for policy changes and called for the effective regulation of the discretionary powers of law enforcement personnel in order to reduce the risks.