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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination discusses situation in Costa Rica and Colombia with NGOs

4 August 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this morning heard from representatives of non-governmental organizations from Colombia and Costa Rica, ahead of its review of their reports later this week.

Concerning Costa Rica, a non-governmental organization representative told the Committee that racism was strongly entrenched in various aspects of society. Most Government authorities ignored the National Policy for a Country Free of Racism and to date all 21 complaints submitted by Afro-Costa Ricans to the Constitutional Court had been declared groundless. The lack of access for effective reparations amounted to persistent, systemic racism. People of African descent were more economically disadvantaged than other populations, and children from that community had higher school drop-out rates. The existing legal obstacles should be removed and civil servants be provided with training to help them fully implement international treaties.

Regarding Colombia, non-governmental organizations representatives informed the Committee about various examples of racial discrimination, including disregard of a number of Constitutional Court rulings on the need to consult local communities before major decisions affecting them were taken. They also raised violations of community rights to land ownership which affected safety and cultural integrity, and impunity for crimes of racism, especially when the perpetrators were civil servants. The exploitation of natural resources by Government-licensed mining companies without the consent of local communities was seriously affecting the Wayuu community in north Cauca. The Government should provide better protection to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, and help them to participate in the Havana peace talks, said representatives.

Representatives of the following non-governmental organizations spoke in today’s meeting: Red Nacional de Juventud Afrocostarricense, Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia, Association of Community Councils in the North of Cauca, Franciscan Family of Colombia, Franciscans International, IPES Ilkaertea, Red de Mujeres Indigenas Seymaka, Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, Wayunkerra Indigenous Women’s Initiative, Maloca Internationale and Capaj.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today to start its review of the combined fifteenth to sixteenth report of Colombia (CERD/C/COL/15-16). The country reviews can also be watched via live webcast at http://www.treatybodywebcast.org.

Statement on Costa Rica

A representative from the Red Nacional de Juventud Afrostarricense stressed the importance of having disaggregated data in Costa Rica. Strongly entrenched racism existed in Costa Rica, and was present in various aspects of Costa Rican society. Most Government authorities ignored the National Policy for a Country Free of Racism. Until today, all 21 complaints submitted by Afro-Costa Ricans to the Constitutional Court had been declared groundless. There was a lack of access for effective reparation, which amounted to persistent, systemic racism. The existing legal obstacles should be removed; awareness raising and training for civil servants ought to take place, so that they could implement the international legal treaties fully. There were currently no appropriate sentences for the crimes of racism or racial discrimination and racial hatred or incitement were not listed as offences. The population of people of African descent was more economically disadvantaged as a whole and children from that community had higher school drop-out rates. The representative stressed that the right to education was a fundamental pillar of democracy, and no young person enjoying their cultural identity should be expelled from the classroom. The Ministry of Education should undertake a more proactive role in that regard and lead a campaign to eliminate racism in education.

Discussion on Costa Rica

An Expert asked about the latest figures from the census, and whether they appropriately reflected reality. Would the current interpretation of the constitution be overcome in the future, and the Constitutional Court positively consider some of the complaints on racism submitted to it? She also asked about the provision of human rights training to the judiciary, and about the book Cocorí which was used in educational institutions. Another Expert asked about the lack of progress in constitutional reform and adoption of relevant legislation, which she said was symptomatic of inefficiency and inertia. She asked for unemployment statistics for Afro-Costa Ricans in comparison to other groups. An Expert asked about the discrimination of people of African descent living in rural areas. Information was also sought about construction on indigenous lands and discrimination in sports.

The NGO representative stressed that the Constitutional Court had completely denied ethnic and racial considerations of the population of African descent. The judiciary was not trained in the matters of racism and ethnicity, which was why a recommendation on raising awareness among the judiciary would be welcome. Having a judge of indigenous or African background on board would also be welcome, he said. The Ombudsperson’s Office had opened a very important dialogue with the population of African descent and an important proposal was underway on the need to implement International Labour Organization Convention 169 regarding people of African and indigenous descent.

Cocorí was published in 1947 and persons of African descent claimed that the book perpetuated stereotypes of black children as little monkeys, the NGO representative explained. Members of the Afro-Costa Rican population were trying to have it removed from the compulsory reading list in schools. A number of law suits had been brought forward, including by 10-year old pupils of African descent. There was also a call to stop the use of public funds to promote the use of or stage performances of the book.

Over seven per cent of the population of Costa Rica were of African descent, said the representative. Constitutional reform was on the table, and affirmative action should be taken, but that had not yet taken place. There were high levels of racism in the media, several female Members of the Parliament had received death threats via social media, and racism in sports stadiums was also an issue.

The poorest regions in Costa Rica were those inhabited by people of indigenous and African descent, the non-governmental representative explained. The Afro Costa Rican movement had made numerous demands that steps be taken in combating racism in sports. The Football Association had adopted an article in its regulations to fight racism, but no penalties had been imposed thus far and not a single conviction on a football club.
Certain communities were being evicted from their lands, which were then used for construction of plants, in contravention of the International Labour Organization Convention 169.

Statements on Colombia

A representative of Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia said that the Colombian State had not implemented the 2009 recommendations issued by the Committee. It continued to systematically violate the rights of the Afro-Colombian and Palenquero communities. Examples of discrimination included: ignoring a number of Constitutional Court rulings on the need to consult local communities before major decisions affecting them were taken; violations of communities’ right to land ownership, which affected both safety and cultural integrity; and impunity for crimes of racism, especially when committed by civil servants. The Committee was asked to recommend the State Party hold discussions on development plans to ensure direct participation of the people of African descent in decisions that affected their land.

A representative of the Association of Community Councils in the North of Cauca, the Franciscan Family of Colombia and Franciscans International stated that structural racism existed in Colombia on a daily basis. Illegal mining in a number of municipalities was defended by armed groups, which made treats to community leaders in various regions. Illegal concessions had been granted to a number of mining companies, while indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities were trying to defend their land. Any decision on mining without prior and free consent, and a full consultation in that regard, was illegal. There should be recognition of ancestral rights in North Cauca, which would help defend the rights of black communities living there. Institutions were not equipped to provide those of indigenous or African origin with their rights, which were violated in a structural way. A large number of people were being displaced in North Cauca, especially in the Suarez municipality, which exacerbated the existing poverty.

Representatives for IPES Ilkartea, Red de Mujeres Indigenas Seymaka, Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, and Wayunkerra Indigenous Women’s Initiative spoke of the exploration of natural resources by mining companies which were using licenses issued by the Government. River drying had serious consequences for local communities, which suffered from both military operations and mining activities in their areas. Traditionally, the Wayuu had lived from agriculture, hunting and livestock breeding. As many as 22 communities had been uprooted because of large scale coal mining projects, which were the largest in the world. The only underground wells in La Guajira had been constructed more than sixty years earlier. Regrettably, local people had a very poor diet as their access to food was limited to a small number of crops and access to water was restricted. The indigenous children faced malnutrition and diarrhoea as a result. The future of the Wayuu civilization was at stake, and the Committee’s support was necessary.

A representative for Maloca Internationale said that children unnecessarily died in Wayuu territories, which amounted to a humanitarian crisis. The water sources of the Wayuu people ought to be protected. The Committee was asked to request the Government of Colombia to start a project to find a solution to that problem. If no actions were taken by the Government, an appeal could be made to the International Court of Justice to establish if what was being done in La Guajira could be qualified as genocide, suggested the representative.

A representative of Capaj stated that the slavery, extermination and plunder of South American territories by the Spanish colonialists were among the most serious crimes in history. Those territories continued to be plundered by new invaders coming from the United States of America, she said. Colombia suffered the most in that regard because it was the gateway to South America. The indigenous cause should be recognized and crimes against indigenous people should be judged with the same force other major crimes, such as the Holocaust in Europe, had been condemned. The mafia was involved in killings and forced disappearances of local inhabitants trying to defend their lands, all with the view of taking over precious resources. The Committee should demand from the Colombian Government to undertake to respect the rights of black and indigenous Colombians; behaviour reminiscent of Spanish colonialism should end once and for all.

Discussion on Colombia

Committee Experts asked about the recent killing of an indigenous person and whether he had been protected by the Government. They also asked for information on other indigenous peoples in Colombia and whether the situation of the Wayuu people was unique. An Expert asked what problems had been encountered in the process of prior consultation.

A representative of Processo de Comunidades Negras en Colombia said that the slain indigenous leader had not received any protection. Protection had indeed been requested, because of the death threats issued to him, but none had been provided. The system of protection provided by the Government was not sufficient under current circumstances. Collective protection measures ought to be discussed with the State; if a leader had to leave his community, it affected and weakened the entire community. The negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC were important; persons of the African descent ought to be represented in the process in order to secure effective defence of their rights, he said.

A representative of the Association of Community Councils in the North of Cauca added that protection services were not provided unless there were actual attempts to kill Afro-Colombian leaders. Collective proposal measures included community alerts, as the expulsion of local communities from their territories appeared to be the easiest solution. In the north of Cauca, one of the regions most affected by the conflict, steps should be taken for people to remain on their ancestral territories and have their rights recognized and protected. The black community should thus participate in the peace talks.

A representative for Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu added that the authorities were slow to respond to demands for protection. Indigenous women’s movements in various fora had been accused of being an impediment to development. The Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu did not have protection measures in place. The Committee was asked to recommend Colombia provide appropriate protection to indigenous women. Many locals faced the scourge of famine, and most indigenous children were at danger of malnutrition, it was emphasized.

A representative for Capaj informed the Committee that forced displacement was taking place in Colombia at the moment. Many indigenous people had had to leave their communities and were now living in slums in Bogota. Some among them were trying to reach Chile in hope of finding better living conditions. Colombia should be called on to change the protective system so that the indigenous communities could live in peace and not be forced to move to other countries.

An Expert commented that the recognition of indigenous communities by Governments in South America was a relatively recent issue. She asked non-governmental organization representatives what policy, in their opinion, the Government of Colombia should adopt to ensure economic development while protecting the rights of the indigenous people. Local communities had the right to be consulted before major projects affecting them, she agreed.

A representative of IPES Ilkartea said local communities had to be consulted; their opinions had to be heard before decisions were made.

A representative of Maloca Internationale stated that human rights groups should visit La Guajira to see the situation with their own eyes.

Another non-governmental organization representative said that most people in Colombia did not know much about the systematic discrimination of the indigenous or Afro-Colombians because the media did not disseminate information on the subject. The genocide conducted in La Guajira, and across Latin America, should not be ignored.

The media often depicted indigenous leaders in Cauca as terrorists or guerilla fighters, another representative commented. Many leaders had disappeared under circumstances which had never been clarified. People should not be moved from their land just so that mining projects could take place there.

A representative of the Franciscans International said that the Government had recently tripled the number of licenses issued for mining concessions. The Government’s view of the mining sector ought to be looked at; not enough measures had been undertaken to eradicate illegal mining.

A representative of Capaj stated that those belonging to indigenous and black communities were generally not welcome in peace negotiations.

A representative of Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia explained that what was missing at the State level was the political will to recognize minority communities with specific characteristics, which would entitle them to autonomy on certain lands. Racial discrimination and stigmatization would thus continue.

A representative for Red de Mujeres Indigenad Seymaka said that mining and other licenses should be revoked when proper consultations had not taken place. The Committee should urge Colombia to revoke licenses which had allowed mining companies to redirect water resources. Climate change had been exacerbated in certain regions because of the actions taken by the multinationals.

An Expert raised the issue of reparations, which had been included in the Committee’s previous recommendations. He also asked about the overall health conditions of minority populations and whether the mining companies normally hired local people.

A representative of Association of Community Councils in the North of Cauca responded that the issue of reparations had not been properly addressed. The health system of Colombia was in very bad shape overall. A number of Afro-Colombian women died at childbirth because of the inappropriate care provided. Mining projects were simply not sustainable even if they provided for jobs. Farming and livestock breeding practices ought to be promoted instead.

A representative of Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu said that the Justice and Peace Act provided for the process of reparations, but victims had not been fully compensated or provided with truth. Reparation was a very complex subject and not yet fully implemented.

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For use of the information media; not an official record