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Statement of Mr. Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General, on behalf of the High-Commissioner for Human Rights - Closure of the 2011 International Year for People of African Descent, 6 December 2011, 10 am to 1 pm, Conference Room 4

On this special occasion, and as the celebrations of the 2011 International Year for People of African Descent draw to a close, I would like to pay tribute to the millions of people of African descent worldwide, for the progress they have made on their issues during the last year.  If we have made progress in raising awareness about the plight of people of African Descent, no doubt this is because of the unwavering efforts and resolve of their representatives to create a space in the complex forums of multilateral processes and to strengthen national, regional and international action for the promotion and protection of their rights.

The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action is the first international text that analyses the plight of the people of African descent. A decade following its adoption, States have made some progress in entrenching protective measures for people of African descent in their constitutions and statutes; some countries have adopted affirmative action policies for the advancement of their rights; and have enacted specific legislation, such as that which recognizes the rights of people of African descent over their ancestral lands.

I therefore wish to congratulate all actors whose collective efforts have contributed to the successful execution of the International Year. I would like to highlight the High-Level Summit for People of African Descent held in Salvador, Brazil, in November this year, in which several Heads of State participated.

Our Office has been able to play its part during the International Year, developing an office-wide Framework for Action to combat discrimination against Afro-descendents beyond 2011. We have also launched for the first time a fellowship programme aiming at empowering young people of African descent. During three weeks ten Afro-descendent fellows were hosted by OHCHR in Geneva. We felt energized by their dynamism and fresh ideas.  They are part of the Facebook generation which is showing a growing resolve to change our word. I firmly believe that investing in young people will pay great dividends for all.

A number of other noteworthy initiatives took place throughout the International Year, including an art festival showcasing and celebrating the enormous contributions that people of African descent have made. High-level panel discussions and relevant side events during the Human Rights Council sessions served to maintain an ongoing interest in and give resonance to issues affecting people of African descent.

We organized and serviced the 78th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which included the adoption of General recommendation N° 34 on racial discrimination against people of African descent. 

We also continued to assist Member States to translate their international obligations to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination into national laws, policies and programmes. Technical assistance for the development of national action plans against racial discrimination, with particular focus on people of African descent, has been provided to Bolivia and Uruguay. Similarly, we are implementing a two-year regional project in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama aimed at strengthening the capacity of non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, racial equality bodies and the United Nations system to safeguard the rights of people of African descent.

Despite all our efforts made during the last years, human rights violations are still part of the daily reality of many individuals of African descent. In countries where data exists, most indicators for well-being demonstrate that they disproportionately suffer compared to non-Afro-descendent populations. Afro-descendents are still amongst the poorest communities, and the targets of marginalization and exclusion. According to a study recently published by UNICEF and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in five countries from this region that have information available, 1 out 3 indigenous and Afro-descendent children live in extreme poverty and 2 out of 3 live in poverty.

The dire situation of people of African descent is often exacerbated by numerous and complex factors. Discrimination and inequality circumscribe every aspect of their lives. They are often denied equal access to quality education. Racist attitudes in may limit their employment possibilities. In many cases, young African descendants endure acts of violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement officials and are victims of racial profiling. When their rights are violated, recourse to institutions of justice is often a distant possibility.

In addition, people of African descent face new and emerging challenges. Some communities face a daily struggle for survival, whether displaced by conflict or large-scale development projects and being forced into conditions of extreme vulnerability and insecurity. Furthermore, we are increasingly witnessing hate speech and derogatory language against Afro-descendents in the media.

The International Year for People of African Descent should not be seen as an end in itself. It is essential that we keep up the momentum. The theme for the International Year: “Recognition, Justice and Development”, may inspire some aspects of our work to address this situation. I wish to pay tribute to the Working Group of the People of African Descent that recommended this rallying theme. Allow me to unpack how this theme may play.

Firstly, enhanced recognition may assist States to acknowledge problems faced by people of African descent and respond to them. States will be able to better tackle inequality, prevent or reduce tensions within societies if they acknowledge on one hand the value of diversity and on the other that certain groups face discrimination and exclusion. Recognition also means tackling the pressing issues of our times such as promoting and protecting the rights of people of African descent to their own culture and identity, and to the free practice of traditional African religions.

Secondly, speaking about justice, we need to combat the impunity for manifestations and practices of racism and racial discrimination targeting people of African descent. We also need to redouble our efforts in order to ensure equal access to justice and equal protection of the law at all stages of law enforcement, from interaction with the police, to presentation of court cases and sentencing.

And thirdly, in a period of economic and financial crisis, we need to strengthen our efforts in integrating human rights into all approaches to development, including the Millennium Development Goals. Development must aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and provide for a fair distribution of benefits, without any kind of discrimination. In addition, mainstreaming a gender perspective and taking into account multiple or aggravated forms of discrimination affecting women is a necessary precondition for development.

Undoubtely, the different activities carried out around the world during the International Year generated profound discussions, produced creative proposals for solutions and gave much-needed visibility to the plight of people of African descent.

Nevertheless, millions of people of African descent around the world are still unaware that they have rights they can demand, and that their governments are accountable to them, and to a wide-ranging body of rights-based national and international law. Despite all our work over the last months, this International Year will pass many people of African descent by.

The International Year arrives to an end. As you may know the General Assembly recently adopted a resolution encouraging the Working Group of Experts on People of African descent to develop a Programme of Action for the Decade of People of African descent, for adoption by the Human Rights Council, with the view to proclaim the Decade for 2013-2023. This will definitely open new doors for future work for the betterment of the situation of Afro descendents, I look forward to the results of the Working Group discussions and I invite you all to contribute to this important endeavor.

The road to a world free from racism is not an easy one. Anti-discrimination work is a long-term process. It requires commitment and persistence. People of African descent need encouragement and support.  Member States have the moral and legal obligation to provide sustained political and financial backing to continue our path toward equal and just societies.

I wish to conclude by quoting the Nigerian Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, who remains us that the fight against racism, cannot wait: “That calendar, we know, is not universal, but time is, and so are the imperatives of time. And of those imperatives that challenge our being, our presence, and humane definition at this time, none can be considered more pervasive than the end of racism, the eradication of human inequality, and the dismantling of all their structures.”

Thank you.