Zeid: Turning a corner in the fight for the rights of Afro-descendants

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BRASILIA/GENEVA (7 December 2015) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has urged the Latin American and Caribbean Region to seize on the opportunities and initiatives provided by the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) to bring concrete improvement to the lives of Afro-descendants.

Last week, the first Regional Meeting of the Decade held in Brasilia (3-4 December) brought together States, regional organizations, national human rights institutions, equality bodies and civil society, particularly people of African descent, as well as UN bodies from the region.

“I am struck by the enormity of the task before us,” High Commissioner Zeid told the meeting. “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. A decade is such a short time.”

Zeid noted that while the abolition of slavery brought freedom, many of the deeply discriminatory social structures were never torn down and remain to this day.

“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.

“Historically and in the present day, people of African descent have been major contributors to development and the prosperity of their societies and nations, but have been denied their fair share of the dividends. On the contrary, their human rights have been violated so that others may thrive.”

Zeid 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) 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.

“Recognition is about acknowledging and understanding, concretely, the extent and depth of racism and racial discrimination faced by people of African descent. It is about making Afro-descendants and their history, culture and achievements visible in education curricula, in textbooks and in the cultural arena. Recognition also means sensitizing State officials, including in the spheres of law enforcement and justice, to prevent racial profiling and police brutality. And it means ensuring just and adequate reparation and satisfaction for any damage as a result of such discrimination, as required by the DDPA,” he said.

“In the sphere of justice, Afro-descendants have reported to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that even when they are victims of crimes, they do not lodge formal complaints to the police because they simply do not trust State institutions and they fear being re-victimized. This is terribly unfortunate but unsurprising, given the disproportionate use of force against people of African descent, particularly young men; their over-representation among the prison population; and the endemic racial profiling and discrimination they face in encounters with law enforcement officials. Justice is about combatting impunity by promptly and transparently enforcing the law against police officers who use unjustified lethal force and disproportionate violence.”

Zeid called on States to ensure that women and men of African descent are active partners in the design of development initiatives. “There has been a historical neglect and lack of public investment in neighbourhoods and regions that are predominantly Afro-descendant. This needs to be reversed in partnership with the communities,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, 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 DDPA at national, regional and global levels. It also reaffirms support for the creation of the Forum for People of African Descent and supports the elaboration of a draft UN Declaration. Delegates stressed the importance of starting the work as soon as possible. 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.

“We entered the Decade for People of African Descent with such an immense burden of historical and contemporary injustices that it is difficult not to bow down under the weight of despair,” Zeid said. “But we have an opportunity here to help strengthen communities of African descent and with them to strengthen the stability, democracy, rule of law, governance, security and development of the entire Latin American and Caribbean region. 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.”

To read the full speech, please visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16841&LangID=E

International Decade for people of African descent Website: http://www.un.org/en/events/africandescentdecade/index.shtml