Header image for news printout

Address by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the 16th session of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent

1 April 2015

Excellencies, Colleagues and friends,

I am delighted to join this 16th Session of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and may I say that I am honoured that the General Assembly has appointed me to be the coordinator for our work in the International Decade for People of African Descent. The theme of your discussions – “Development and people of African descent” – is vital if we are to achieve real progress in combating the many barriers that people of African descent continue to face all over the world, and your conclusions and recommendations will be valuable input for the implementation of the Decade’s programme of activities.

After centuries of appalling suffering created by the Transatlantic slave trade, enslavement, and colonialism, people of African descent continue to this day to struggle for equal rights and dignity. Despite emancipation; despite the massive gains made in many heroic struggles for civil rights and independence; and despite the economic growth and accelerated development processes that have characterised the past sixty years, an intolerable number of people of African descent continue to be burdened by underdevelopment.

They face discrimination in their access to fundamental services, including education, health-care and basic resources. They face massive inequalities in the distribution of the dividends of economic development. They face poverty so crushing that its weight is carried from generation to generation. Even systems for law-enforcement and justice – the very systems that should ensure fairness and protect all individuals – are often skewed against people of African descent, who are massively and unfairly over-represented in prisons around the globe. More recently, we have also witnessed growing and vicious manifestations of racism, Afrophobia and xenophobia in many countries.

The international community will open a new chapter in development this year, as we adopt the Sustainable Development Goals that will guide our work for the next 15 years. These goals will be strongly grounded in the human rights principles of non-discrimination, inclusivity, equality and human dignity. And they can only be realised if Governments fully acknowledge the obstacles that face people of African descent within their countries, and work to dismantle those barriers. Governments must put into practice a rights-based approach to development, meaning that among other key elements, they must ensure a more equitable, participatory and accountable environment for historically marginalized and discriminated groups to enjoy their right to development – including people of African descent.

In the past, your recommendations have frequently highlighted many severe developmental challenges faced by people of African descent. They have repeatedly pointed out the prevalence of multiple, aggravated or intersecting forms of discrimination, adding to the burden of racial prejudice discrimination on other grounds, such as sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, social origin, property, birth, disability or other status.

These are key points, and they must be addressed in an active and action-based discussion that involves every type of stakeholder – including civil society groups at every level; national and local authorities; international organisations; and transnational actors such as business and other international financial institutions. In our globalized economy, all these actors have the power to influence development outcomes. By working together, we can amplify and leverage our work to overturn entrenched inequalities.

The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action outlined the need to strengthen international cooperation to create more equal opportunities for trade, economic growth and sustainable development. It also encouraged the use of new communications technologies and increased intercultural exchange to enhance our work to preserve and promote diversity, and thus contribute to the eradication of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance. I note that you held a panel discussion on the International Decade yesterday with the heads of several mechanisms set up under the Durban Programme of Action, and I look forward to hearing your insights.

Excellencies, Members of the Working Group,

I am aware of the Working Group’s concerns about the limited participation of civil society in its sessions. We are hopeful that the interest generated by the International Decade will create new networks of civil society and widen engagement with the Working Group. The annual fellowship programme for people of African descent has strengthened outreach, and this will continue to be a way of empowering civil society. The new Forum for people of African descent will be an important platform for consultation, linking governments, civil society, the UN and the Working Group to discuss the Decade’s objectives and programmes. The Forum will greatly benefit from the Working Group’s experience and guidance.

I have noted that the Working Group is also joining hands with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to discuss the fight against racial discrimination faced by people of African descent on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. I applaud this initiative, which could be a model for other mechanisms seeking to establish strong bonds that can amplify and leverage each other’s work.

My Office is deeply committed to ending racial discrimination against people of African descent, and to promoting respect, protection and fulfilment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. We will continue to work with Member States, civil society and all other stakeholders to implement the important objectives of the International Decade, and I look forward to engaging with you on our implementation of activities in the framework of the Decade. The Working Group’s role in providing analysis and recommendations to ensure the fulfilment of the human rights of people of African descent is vital. I wish you success in your deliberations and look forward to the report of your session.

Thank you.