Side Event: Toward a UN Declaration on the Promotion and Full Respect of the HRs of People of African Descent


2 July 2018

38th session of the Human Rights Council
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

2 July 2018

Colleagues and friends,

Let me start by paying tribute to the resilience of people of African descent who have pushed tirelessly  against discrimination,  humiliation and injustice. The great Nelson Mandela, a mighty force for principles and justice. Martin Luther King Jr., whose powerful voice was stronger than the bigotry he fought. Toussaint L'Ouverture, whose Haitian revolution sought to apply the universality of human rights and influenced emancipation movements across the Americas. Queen Nzinga Mbandi, the 17th century ruler of the nation now known as Angola, a symbol of African resistance to enslavement. Zumbi dos Palmares, of Brazil, who in the 17th century sought to create free societies.

 These are just a few names from the constellation of heroic men and women who have pushed forward towards justice, equality and freedom. The advances we all benefit from today could not have been made without the determination, courage and sacrifices of millions of ordinary people whose stories we continue to uncover.

Many forms of racism and racial discrimination we witness today across the world are deeply rooted in past centuries of colonialism and slavery. Across four hundred years, millions of men and women, boys and girls were captured, soldand subjected to unspeakable horrors by a trade that generated notions of racial inferiority. Unfortunately, even after the abolition of slavery, and the end of colonialism, many of the deeply discriminatory social and economic structures they produced persist, alongside prejudices and disadvantages which were never acknowledged or adequately confronted.

In 2001, the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa was the first international forum to grapple with the legacy of slavery and the colonial  past. And the follow-up actions to the Conference, have given  increased  visibility to the human rights of people of African descent. Several governments have integrated into law protective measures for people of African descent, and for the first time recognized these communities in their constitutions. A number of States now collect disaggregated statistical data on issues involving people of African descent – important first steps in designing the right policies to tackle disparities.

But despite measures for inclusion and social justice, racism and racial discrimination continue to infiltrate every aspect of life – from access to food, education and health, to participation in political decision-making, physical safety and even the right to life. Whether they are descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas, or African migrants in the global diaspora, people of African descent across the world share similar and serious human rights challenges. 

In the US, among 1,136 people the Guardian newspaper reported were killed by the police in 2015, African Americans were killed at twice the rate of whites, Hispanics and Native Americans.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay, women of African descent who have completed secondary education earn on average less than 4 US$ per hour, while white men with the same level of education earn almost 6 US$.

In France, the European Network against Racism has reported that women job applicants with African sounding names have only an 8.4 per cent chance of being called for an interview, compared to a 22.6 per cent chance for women with French-sounding names.

In Canada, 60 per cent of all employed black Canadians earn less than 20,000 CAN$ per year, compared to 37 per cent of non-visible minorities.

In light of these unacceptable realities, the request made by the General Assembly to Member States to consider drawing up a UN Declaration on the Promotion and Full Respect of the Human Rights of People of African Descent is timely and important.

We cannot remain complacent before the scope and severity of these ongoing human rights violations. Isolated actions will not undo centuries of racism and structural discrimination; not even a Decade for people of African descent will achieve it. We need a document to help us go forward in recognizing and realising the rights of people of African descent in a comprehensive manner. 

Equality of opportunities and of outcome – equality that is both de jure and de facto – requires a broad range of actions that complement and reinforce each other. They must be grounded in targeted international legal frameworks that take into account the rights, specific needs, histories and challenges faced by people who have suffered profound discrimination for generations, impeding their access to full and effective equality.

Specific legal frameworks addressed to specific groups from a universal perspective can provide minimum standards to be applied.  Such agreement on bottom-lines can accelerate change and make a transformative difference. We have witnessed this with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which has been embraced by States and the indigenous peoples themselves as an empowering tool enabling the realisation of rights.

The Declaration should serve as an incentive for national action providing concepts and ideas that could be translated in the adoption of equality laws and policies.  It should be comprehensive and cover civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It should relate to the urgent human rights challenges faced by people of African descent today: negative stereotyping, police brutality, racial profiling and unequal access to education, health and employment.

The primary beneficiaries of the Declaration—people of African descent—should be directly engaged in the drafting process, enabling them to articulate their views to the world community and to engage with their Governments in a manner they have not been able to in the past.

Yes, the road towards the Declaration will require commitment, persistence and political will. I urge all Member States to unite on this process. A United Nations Declaration on the Promotion and Full Respect of the Human Rights of People of African Descent will not only benefit people of African descent, it will benefit societies as a whole and strengthen democracy, peace and development. 

Allow me to conclude with Wole Soyinka’s memorable statement on racism: “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