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Combating discrimination against Afro-descendants

In a statement to a panel seeking solutions to the contemporary human rights challenges faced by people of African descent, the UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay said that “the participation of people of African descent in political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society and in the advancement and economic development of their countries is of fundamental importance.”

Expert panel at the Human Rights Council © UN Photo/ David McCreery

Over 200 million people self-identify as being of African descent. Many bear the legacy of the racism that characterized the transatlantic slave trade that spanned 400 years starting in the 16th century. Today, the deeply rooted discrimination Afro-descendants face hinders their full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights.

Although most countries have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and have adopted laws to protect against racism, more behavioural and institutional change must occur, according to the Chairperson of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Mirjana Najcevska.

She advocated for a large scale ‘social therapy for non Afro-descendants’. She also noted that “racial inequality is not fundamentally a matter of what is in people's heads, nor a matter of their private individual intentions, but rather a matter of public institutions and practices that create or perpetuate racism”.

She added that the first step towards finding sustainable solutions would be to recognize that people of African descent face a unique type of discrimination, which is replicated around the world regardless of the political system and the geographic situation of the country.

“Having in mind that inequitable institutions are very resistant to change we should consider proactive instead of reactive measures in search of appropriate response to the problem”, she said. Positive or affirmative action, she added, was one of the solutions.

The Chairperson of the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, Florence Simbiri Jaoko said that today migrants coming from Africa are often exploited as cheap labour in western countries, living and working in hardship. Western countries were not hesitant to participate in the brain drain from African countries which lost the manpower in which they had heavily invested to western countries.

“It should be noted that discrimination and unequal treatment of people of African descent does not happen only outside but also inside of Africa”, she added.

Epsy Campbell, President of the Centre for Afro-Costa Rican Women noted that in the past 10 years there had been a greater acknowledgement of people of African descent who, even though remained excluded, had become one of the majority groups in the Americas and the Caribbean.

“In its 2010 report entitled “Time for Equality”, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean showed that Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples are the most disadvantaged in the region, in one of the most unequal regions in the world”, she said.

Speakers at the panel regretted that 10 years after the World Conference on Racism, the progress achieved did not match the expectations of the international community. Despite the deep commitment demonstrated then to fight all forms of racial discrimination, people of African descent continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty and exclusion.

The panel was the first of a number of UN initiatives planned to mark the International Year for People of African Descent during 2011. Speakers noted that tribute should be paid to the millions who had forcibly left the African continent. Measures should be stepped up to help Afro-descendants fully enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights.

3 March 2011