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Defending the rights of African descendants in the Americas

“My battleground relates to racism and racial discrimination,” says human rights defender Verónica Villagra, representative of the Mundo Afro collective that defends the rights of black Uruguayans.

Lucia Xavier of the Rio-based NGO Criola © UNIC Rio de JaneiroAfrican descendants make up close to a third of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean (numbering roughly 150 million according to a 2010 UNDP Report), but they continue to face a disproportionate degree of poverty and exclusion, compounded by overt racial discrimination.

“In Uruguay we have made undeniable progress but maintaining and improving this is a daily task. We represent 9.2 percent of a population of three million. Seventy percent of afro-Uruguayans are poor and we have been historically invisible. We also face many challenges because racism mutates and acquires new forms”, laments Villagra. “The divide stemming from 500 years of racism distances us from the rest of society in terms of access to skilled employment and to secondary and tertiary education. The practice of racism is so embedded in people’s subconscious, that it is very hard to raise awareness and to deconstruct it.” 

A historic hub of the transatlantic slave trade, Brazil today has the biggest number of African descendants in the region, as well as one of the highest proportions per capita. It is also one of the countries with the widest racial gaps in poverty, education and literacy rates.   

“In the experience of Brazil’s black population, the primary agent violating their rights is the State”, explains Lucia Xavier, a social worker and Coordinator of the Rio-based NGO Criola that focuses on the rights of black women.

“Racism is impregnated in all of our public institutions… So an important part of our work involves legislative accompaniment at both the local and national levels.”

She says this goes hand-in-hand with education, training and advocacy to raise awareness of socio-economic rights in particular. “Our stamp needs to be the conjugation of those rights into public policies, as well as finding judicial remedies”, says Xavier.

Citing the need to strengthen national actions and international cooperation to ensure that people of African descent fully enjoy economic, cultural, social, civil and political rights, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent. Currently, such efforts to raise awareness and increase cooperation are being spearheaded by various institutional as well as individual human rights defenders across the region.
The UN Human Rights Regional Office for South America, as well as the other OHCHR presences in the Americas, actively supports the work of human rights defenders who advocate for the rights of Afro-descendants. In 2010, the regional office organized activities for civil society in the region, which highlighted the work of various UN human rights mechanisms dealing with discrimination including the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Working Group on people of African descent, and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

The focus of Human Rights Day 2010 was human rights defenders acting against discrimination, a theme the High Commissioner will continue to highlight throughout the year. Also on December 10, the UN launched the International Year for People of African Descent - 2011.

3 February 2011