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Statement by Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at Launch of the International Decade for People of African Descent, Geneva, PN Cinema Room XIV, 16 December 2014, 5 pm – 8 pm

Colleagues and Friends,

As we launch the International Decade for People of African descent, I  pay tribute to those who made the Decade possible. Representatives of people of African descent resolved to end the long-standing discrimination their communities face by bringing their issues to multilateral fora and demanded national, regional and international measures to address the plight of people of African Descent. This resulted in the designation of 2011 as the International year for people of African descent. In the last years, States have made good progress in integrating protective measures for people of African descent into their constitutions and statutes; some countries as Brazil have adopted affirmative action policies for the equal access to higher education for people of African descent; and some have enacted specific laws recognizes the rights of people of African descent over their ancestral lands, as Colombia and Nicaragua.

In 2001 the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action drew attention to the situation  of the people of African descent, stating that: “We consider it essential […] to recognize the persistence of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance that specifically affect [the population of African descent], and recognize that, in many countries, their long-standing inequality in terms of access to, inter alia, education, health care and housing has been a profound cause of the socio-economic disparities that affect them;” (para. 33) This assessment remains valid: inequality and human rights violations are still part of the daily reality of many people of African descent – often unseen and unrecognized as there are limited  disaggregated data to make these violations visible.

In countries where data exist, indicators on well-being show that Afro-descendent populations suffer disproportionately in relation to other groups: they are marginalized, excluded and among the poorest communities. According to a study recently published by UNICEF and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in five countries from that region where data exist, one out three indigenous and Afro-descendent children live in extreme poverty and two out of three live in poverty. People of African descent continue to lack equal access to quality education. The resulting lesser qualification, combined with racist attitudes may limit their employment possibilities.

People of African descent are at heightened risk of being subjected to street searches due to racial profiling. Young men of African descent experience alarmingly high rates of police violence and at times die in encounters with police officers. Men of African descent continue to be more frequently arrested, incarcerated and subjected to harsher sentences, including life imprisonment without parole and the death penalty.

The theme chosen for the International Decade: “Recognition, Justice and Development” is meant to guide our work: 

Firstly, it is hoped that enhanced recognition will lead States to increasingly acknowledge problems faced by people of African descent. States will be able to tackle inequality and prevent or reduce tensions within societies only if they acknowledge that certain groups face discrimination and exclusion. Recognition also means 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, on justice, we need to step up efforts to combat impunity for manifestations and practices of racism and racial discrimination targeting people of African descent. In order to achieve this, 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 are critical.

And thirdly, we need to more effectively integrate human rights into all approaches to development, including in the contexto of the post 2015 agenda. Development must aim at constantly improving the well-being of the entire population and provide for a fair distribution of benefits, without any kind of discrimination. In addition, integrating a gender perspective and taking into account multiple or aggravated forms of discrimination affecting women and girls are precondition for development.

Colleagues and Friends,

The International Decade will provide people of African descent with much needed visibility and provide the framework to improve their situation., We should aim for new thinking and creative proposals for solutions.

Around these three themes, the Programme of Activities has identified priority areas. These include, among others, education and awareness-raising about history and contributions of people of African descent; participation and inclusion in all spheres of society; discrimination in the administration of justice; adoption of special measures; promotion of the right to development and other measures against poverty; equal access to quality education, employment, housing and health; and multiple forms of discrimination.

The International Decade is an historic occasion for the United Nations, Member States, civil society, people of African descent and all others to work together to  take real and concerted action.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has been appointed as Coordinator of the Decade. His role is to follow up on the implementation of activities. He has been requested to increase and strengthen support for the relevant mechanisms of the Human Rights Council in combating racial discrimination in the context of the Decade.

At the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights -- in close coordination with the Department of Public Information, UNESCO, and regional organizations -- we will carry out an awareness-raising campaign. We will continue to strengthen our successful fellowship programme for people of African descent. And we will expand our anti‒discrimination database to include a section on the activities of the Decade.

The road to a world free from racism, prejudice and stigma is rocky Combatting racial discrimination is a long-term effort. 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 make the Decade effective ant to continue our path toward equal and just societies.

I wish to conclude by quoting Maya Angelou, who reminds us that the future has to build on the past: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Thank you.