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International Decade For People Of African Descent, Regional Meeting For Europe, Central Asia And North America

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

23 November 2017

Excellencies,
Distinguished panellists and participants
Colleagues and friends,

It is an honour to stand among you this morning, and to open this meeting devoted to the rights of people of African Descent. Across Europe, Central Asia and North America, people of African descent continue to endurepervasive discrimination in law and in practice, extending from  neighbourhoods and schools to workplaces, political representation and justice. Whether they are descendants of the victims of slavery brought to North America and Europe against their will, or more recent migrants, people of African descent are frequently denied rights and experience exclusion, humiliation and impoverishment as a result of  racial discrimination. 

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us, all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. There can be absolutely no justification whatsoever for the multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination which give women of African descent access to lower quality healthcare, and offer children of African descent poorer education in sub-standard schools; which deprive both men and women of African descent of an equal chance of decent employment; and which destine disproportionate numbers of people of African descent to a marginalised existence characterised by poverty and violence.

And yet across the regions of Europe, Central Asia and North America, expert missions by the Working Group on People of African Descent and related working groups; the Special Rapporteur on racism; the Special Rapporteur on Minorities; CERD; and experts from the European and Inter-American regional bodies have found extensive, sharply etched and deeply rooted discrimination in laws, policies, practices and institutions.

In the United States of America, with the largest population of people of African descent in this regional grouping, inequalities generated by generations of slavery and legal segregation endure, despite the achievements of the civil rights movement and the subsequent changes in the legal framework. People of African descent continue to face disproportionate poverty; unequal services; and even significantly lower average life expectancy.  Women of African descent have unequal  access to health services, leading to sharp inequalities in health outcomes for women and young children. I have also voiced my concern over practises of racial profiling and patterns of police violence in the United States, as well as the disproportionate imposition of capital punishment on people of African descent and other racial minorities. It is heartening to see people standing up for their human rights. In this context, I note and commend the leadership role of the Black Lives Matter movement in bringing attention to human rights violations, and I join its call for full accountability of police forces in all countries.

I also note serious concerns about systemic anti-Black racism in the Canadian criminal justice system, including  evidence of extensive patterns of racial profiling by law enforcement.

I have spoken widely about my deep concerns regarding widespread  discrimination against minorities across many European countries. In several countries, patterns of discrimination against people of African descent extend from education in sub-standard schools that feature offensive stereotyping and bullying by teachers and other children, to unequal health care and grossly unfair employment and housing practises. In multiple countries across Europe and Central Asia, heightened hostility towards people who are perceived to be foreigners or migrants is also having increasing impact on people of African descent – including rising incidents of hate crimes and violence. As in North America, I am deeply concerned about discrimination in access to justice, treatment by police, and throughout  justice systems. Racial profiling by law enforcement officials is widespread, with very disproportionate numbers of people of African descent being stopped by police in a number of countries, according to multiple studies.

A first step to tackle discrimination is to listen to the experiences of those who have been marginalized. Yet in numerous European countries, people of African descent remain under-represented in the media, let alone in political life. Their daily life, histories and identities are largely erased from the national narrative and official histories and textbooks, and to some extent also from national cultural identity – despite the prominence of a number of writers, thinkers and creators of African descent in every country.

This is disgraceful and deeply damaging, on numerous levels – most obviously, the rights of the individuals who are being held back. But as a student of history, I also deplore the widespread failure in many countries to acknowledge the reality and legacy of the slave-trade and subsequent colonial exploitation of Africa – including in terms of their contributions to the prosperity of many cities and ports. It is important to speak the truth about the past in order to be able to see clearly what is happening in the present; and it is essential to acknowledge the presence of every child and adult who is a part of a society’s unfolding story. 

Excellencies,

Discrimination is the deepest, most comprehensive obstruction to a human being's rights. Its’ scars on individuals and generations run deep. But discrimination also harms all of society. It deepens mistrust, casting suspicion on all sides and tearing apart the social fabric. It creates grievances which corrode every sense of belonging and shared values.

It is urgent and important that such forces be turned around – both for the sake of the individuals concerned, and for the values and vitality of the countries in which we live.

The International Decade for people of African descent is about taking down the walls between communities, and allowing every member of every society their inalienable and equal rights. Because that is just: we – all human beings – are equal and have an equal right to dignity. And also because that is how to create sound and peaceful societies. Because every country in the world needs to be able to draw on the skills and contributions of every member. Because inclusion builds truly strong societies – societies that are strong because they are fair.

Seeking an end to the injustice and the humiliation of discrimination is at the core of my mandate and the work of my Office. We are developing strategies that support  the Decade, empowering people of African Descent, enabling recognition of their rights and helping to achieve justice. Our work includes supporting national efforts to enhance the rights of people of African Descent, a fellowship programme, the provision of small grants to communities, in addition to reporting on various thematic aspects of racial discrimination suffered by people of African descent. The UN system is also seeking to raise awareness and spark concrete action. But we can and will do better in the next seven years of the Decade.

Our advocacy needs to become more powerful; our guidance more specific and persuasive; and we must increase the involvement of people of African descent themselves in our actions to implement the Decade and end discrimination.

I look forward to fruitful discussions over the next two days. I assure you that I and my Office will continue to voice our concerns, and to advocate for and assist in building State policies and practises which uphold the equal rights of all people.

Thank you