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People of African Descent: Progress since Durban

In 2001 the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) recognized that people of African descent have been for centuries victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and it spoke of the importance and necessity of ensuring their full integration into social, economic and political life.

A dancer from the Surialanga Dance Company of South Africa performs at the opening ceremony of the Durban Review Conference. UN Photo/Pierre VirotEight years on, the Review Conference being held in Geneva is evaluating how far the international community has moved forwards in its implementation of the DDPA.

Speaking at a Conference side-event, “People of African Descent and the way forward”, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, acknowledged the ground-breaking achievements of the 2001 World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

“We addressed the past to dissipate the clouds menacing a better future. We made solemn commitments to work together and to implement a functional common agenda.”

Since the original Durban conference, there has been substantial progress at the intergovernmental level, with the creation of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism and the Independent Expert on minority issues, all of which have consistently taken up Afro-descendant issues.

At the national level, many countries have amended their constitutions to include clearer references to their multicultural characters. Some States have created national institutions to promote racial equality. In some countries, legislation has been adopted which includes affirmative action policies for education, political participation, targeted health programs and other initiatives of specific interest to people of African descent.

Although these processes have resulted in more visibility for people of African descent and to some extent have increased their empowerment, there are still problems ensuring they are not excluded from fully exercising their human rights. The current global economic crisis which threatens to undermine access to work, affordable food and housing, health care and education is a serious risk to the situation of people of African descent, as well as that of all marginalized and vulnerable groups.

Joe Frans, chairperson of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent drew attention to research showing that racist acts are very much underreported. He cited as particularly vulnerable those without legal documents, who are exploited as cheap labour and “have no rights.”

The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Githu Muigai, said a central dimension of the fight against racism lies around the overlap between class and race/ethnicity.

“In most countries, those segments of the population that are more socio-economically vulnerable are disproportionately composed of racial or ethnic minorities,” he said. “They suffer disproportionately from poor educational attainment, low wages and inadequate housing, and are overrepresented in inferior schools, more vulnerable neighborhoods and prisons. These trends contribute to further reinforce prejudices and stereotypes, such as their association to criminality.”

Mr Muigai said it was essential that poverty reduction strategies be based on non-discrimination provisions of human rights law.

Independent expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, illustrated the embedded institutional barriers to the full participation of Afro-descendents by giving the example of how all the black fire fighters failed a promotion examination in New Haven in the United States, while all the top scorers were white.

Baroness Young of Hornsey, United Kingdom Ambassador for the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, spoke about the role of art and the creative industry in bringing about positive, effective change. “The arts can get messages across to populations with varying levels of literacy and educational facilities,” she said.

Maria Alexandra Ocles, Coordinator of the Racial Equality Regional Network in Latin America and Parliamentarian of the National Constituent Assembly of Ecuador, talked about how political participation is essential, particularly for Afro-descendent women, but also that it is one of the greatest challenges they face.

Other panellists, including Edna Santos Roland, Independent Eminent Expert on implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action; Claire Kamau Roberts, Special Rapporteur on people of African descent and Racial Discrimination of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; as well as Alvaro Bello, Professor of Temuco University, Chile, shared national and regional experiences with racism and the mechanisms developed to combat it.

In her speech to the gathering, Ms Pillay said that “a daunting number of challenges must still be met since implementation sorely lags behind rhetorical pledges. Moreover, there is a clear and urgent need to exercise utmost vigilance, particularly in this period of economic and financial crisis that shatters old certainties and may give way to a recrudescence of discrimination against those perceived as predatory outsiders, particularly migrants.” 

April 2009