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Statement by Birgit Gerstenberg, Senior Human Rights Advisor, at the International Decade for People of African Descent Summit 2018, 8-11 March 2018, Georgetown, Guyana

I am honoured to represent the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in this important event convened by the Guyana Committee on the International Decade for People of African Descent on “Where we are, where we ought to be, how we get there by 2024. I also wish to convey the greetings, thanks and the appreciation of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to the Government of Guyana, the organizers and distinct participants of the Summit.

The United Nations the High Commissioner for Human Rights - the coordinator of the Decade - is deeply committed to fighting and eliminating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in all their forms. The Office of the High Commissioner supports the Working Group of Experts on people of African Descent and other Durban follow up mechanisms, the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues.

As a part of its coordination tasks, the Office organizes the regional meetings during the Decade.  The first regional meeting organized by the Office of the High Commissioner was in 2015 held in Brazil for the Latin American and Caribbean region. The second one was held recently in Switzerland in November 2017, for Europe, Central Asia and North America. Many of you may know the OHCHR Fellowship Programme for People of African Descent which is intended to provide an opportunity [for persons of the African diaspora] to deepen understanding their of the United Nations human rights system. OHCHR also provides resources to support the activities of the Decade, starting by its dedicated website, the Database on practical means to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance as well as audio and video material, documents and links.

Only a few days ago the High Commissioner in an Opinion Editorial condemned the racist and xenophobe hatred in Hungary against migrants and asylum seekers and made clear that, against the background of raising populism, this is the time to stand up against racism and hatred. He said: “It is an insult to every African, Asian, Middle Eastern or Latin American woman, man and child. The belief that mixing races creates an ineradicable and damaging taint was once widespread in many countries; in parts of the US, as well as South Africa, miscegenation laws were integral to the humiliation and oppression of people termed of "lesser races". But that era is long dead - or should be. To hear it unabashedly expressed by the leader of a modern, European Union country should outrage every one of us.” 

These called populist phenomena increasingly affect European countries and confirm how important it is to continue to put in the centre of our efforts one of the key principles of human rights: the equality in rights and dignity of all human beings and therefore progressively banning from our laws and social practices discrimination on whatsoever ground. The fact that a Decade of People of African Descent had to be declared indicates that in the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration there has still much to be done to ensure that human rights key principles apply to those who are the descendants of slavery, or those who are subject to contemporaneous forms of slavery as well as migrants and refugees in countries that are not their own or are marginalized and deprived of many of their rights in the countries they live in. In this regard, the interlinkages between recognition, justice and development- the three pillars of the International Decade – are critical because together, they provide a comprehensive outlook on the different ways to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance faced by people of African descent.

Persons of African descent spread over many countries in the course and consequence of the transatlantic slave trade not only suffered unsaid torment and agony, and witnessed the destruction of their societies, families and future, but also see no justice in history and their descendants today still pertain to the poorest segments of post-colonial societies based on on-going discrimination, neglect and marginalization in many spheres of social, political and economic life. It seems a bitter irony that the slave masters were compensated for their economic loss as a condition to slavery being abolished, and the then former slaves got their freedom, but were pushed into new forms of exploitation that would keep them in poverty and rightlessness.

From a human rights perspective, this is morally unacceptable and under today’s International Human Rights Law must be overcome. It is, in addition, an enduring burden for the development of the affected countries. Development - understood as a right “by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized”. (Art. 1 Declaration on Right to Development)

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights thus welcomes the International Decade of People of African Descent as a significant opportunity to target in particular the deeply rooted discrimination against African descendants as one concrete version of racial discrimination outlined by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination and further developed in the Durban process.  But it also perceives the Decade as an opening to build strong linkages to the development objectives of the Caribbean countries.

The International Decade is meant to serve as encouragement and inspiration for all governments and relevant actors in civil society to introduce change and invest in efforts in policies, laws and activities that can transform the lives of people. Although a decade may not be enough to turn the trend around and away from discrimination of people of African descent, much has already been started. The reports of the Secretary General on the International Decade emphatically show how countries have engaged in research, data collection, action plans, policy measures, campaigns and practical measures to enhance the conditions for the enjoyment of human rights. The International Decade for people of African descent must bring us all together to combat racial discrimination, which is increasingly posing a threat to social cohesion across the world.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that internal turmoil and conflict, wars, poverty, and a lack of development options remain a threat to these achievements. The governments are therefore called to analyse the gaps and needs and enhance their skillsets and capacities to allow for recognition, justice and development – [the theme of the International Decade]. 

The recent visit of the Working Group of experts on People of African descent to Guyana and the present Summit are therefore a milestone to achieve exactly the latter objective: To join forces, open the way and creatively strategize in order to change the lives of people. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights congratulates the government and all involved stakeholders to the organization of this strategic event.

Given the multi-ethnic background of many societies, positive measures to impact the enjoyment of rights of people of African descent among other minority groups should, however be backed by a common social compact and should be seen and understood as a benefit to the whole society. This indeed implies a deeper look into and analysis of the overall features of marginalization and structural, social, institutional and legal discrimination in a given society and which can obstruct the way to development and justice for all. There is important progress made in legal developments to ban discrimination which must be expressed by actions and in concrete measures that people can experience as a progress for their lives.

Development is also constraint when racial discrimination is linked to multiple, aggravating or intersecting forms of discrimination on a daily basis. Today, on International Women’s Day, we are reminded of the multiple layers of discrimination women and girls can experience. Other grounds, such as language, religion, political or opinion, social origin, property, birth, disability or other status can further exacerbate racial prejudice. Be it access to health care, education, employment or housing it is often the same situation - people of African descent are more often than not at the lowest levels of or “invisible” in official development statistics. The Sustainable Development Goals are drawing attention to those most left behind and can provide a powerful impulse and favourable environment to achieve the objectives of the International Decade. Relating both –the Decade with the SDGs – is am imperative in order to achieve better and more sustainable results.  

The Office also takes note of and follows closely the important steps taken by Caribbean countries collectively in the direction of recognition of the legacy of transatlantic slave trade, such as the notion of ‘reparatory justice’ endorsed by the Working Group of experts and the CARICOM Ten Point Action Plan on Reparations.

On behalf of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, allow me to convey his firm commitment to advancing the rights of people of African descent. Discussions are ongoing on the drafting of a declaration on the human rights of people of African descent. Of crucial importance is also the organization of the annual forum for people of African descent, which is yet to be formed as a consultation mechanism for Member States, civil society, the UN and all concerned stakeholders to discuss issues of common concern.  I am confident the conclusions and recommendations from this meeting will provide strong impetus to Member States, civil society and all other stakeholders to implement the important objectives of the International Decade, and wish you all success in your important endeavours.

Thank you.


Last modified on Friday, 09 March 2018 16:29
Written on Friday, 09 March 2018 Published in News Stories Read 397 times