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Statement to the media by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit to Portugal (29 November-6 December, 2021)
Lisbon, 6 December 2021
The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent thanks the Government of Portugal for its invitation to visit the country and for its cooperation. We thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for organizing the visit.
The views expressed in this statement are of a preliminary nature. Our final report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2022.
During the visit, the Working Group assessed the human rights situation of people of African descent in Portugal, and gathered information on the forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance they face. The Working Group studied measures and mechanisms to prevent systemic racial discrimination and to protect victims of racism, as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination.
As part of its fact-finding mission, the Working Group visited Lisbon and the districts of Setúbal and Porto. It met with senior officials of the Portuguese Government, including the Minister of Justice, the Minister of the Presidency, Parliamentarians of African Descent, Judges of the Supreme Court, the High Commissioner on Migration and officials from the Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination, the Prosecutor General’s Office as well as law enforcement authorities and the Ombudsperson. It met with the local government officials in Lisbon, Setúbal and Porto. The Working Group also met with civil society representatives of African descent, and United Nations entities working in Portugal. It also visited the Estabelecimento Prisional de Lisboa.
We thank the civil society, human rights defenders, lawyers and academics as well as Africans and people of African descent including affected communities and individuals who shared their experiences. We welcome their efforts to promote and protect the human rights of people of African descent in Portugal.
The Working Group welcomes the good practices and positive steps taken to guarantee the human rights of people of African descent in Portugal including the following:
The emerging discourse on systemic racism in Portugal and its roots in historical processes. The government engagement with civil society in defining its anti-racism agenda.
The adoption of the
National Plan to Combat Racism and Discrimination 2021-2025- Portugal Against Racism (PNCRD).
The affirmation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) and activities in the framework of the International Decade for People of African Descent. This includes Portugal's joint facilitation of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the DDPA and its cosponsoring the General Assembly resolution to proclaim 31st August as the International Day for People of African Descent.
Creation of an Independent Observatory on Hate Speech, Racism and Xenophobia, with relevance to the PNCRD 2021-2025.
Initiatives such as the National Support Centers for the Integration of Migrants (CNAIM), where migrants can access various services; intercultural mediators that mitigate barriers to accessing human rights; the HATE NO MORE campaign (2016-2017), and victim protection measures.
Emerging representation of people of African descent in leadership and policymaking roles, including the Minister of Justice and Home Affairs and three Parliamentarians of African descent, all women.
Amendment to the Nationality Act in favor of citizenship for all children born in Portugal.
The extension of essential services to all persons, including those with irregular status, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Law 93/2017 on combatting racial discrimination, the application of Article 240 of the Criminal Code in certain instances to combat racial discrimination, as well as efforts underway to modify it in line with international human rights standards.
Accountability measures for law enforcement officers such as body worn cameras and video surveillance.
Despite the positive measures referred to above, the Working Group is concerned about the prevalence of racial discrimination and the human rights situation of people of African descent in Portugal.
People of African descent in Portugal experience systemic racism in similar ways despite varied individual circumstances. Following the murder of George Floyd, large anti-racism protests called for the revision of colonial narratives, consistent with global conversations on systemic racism in 2020. Civil society continues to drive the calls for racial justice in the country.
Portuguese identity continues to be defined by its colonial past, and its direct involvement in the trafficking of half of all enslaved Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. Racial equality efforts have not confronted the importance of a broad-based renegotiation of Portuguese identity.
The Working Group observed inaction even in the face of clear violations of human rights. Particularly outside Lisbon, municipal officials were unaware of the National Action Plan Against Racism and generally did not see themselves as custodians of anti-racism on behalf of the constituents of African descent.
Lack of racially disaggregated data significantly limits the ability of the State of Portugal to recognize and acknowledge severe human rights violations taking place in communities of African descent, to develop a systemic understanding of how racial disparities may indicate the racialized use of discretion in ways that sustain and perpetuate racial discrimination, inequality and inequity, to repair or redress this ongoing harm, and to target the perpetrators of racialized misconduct.
The Working Group heard many credible accounts of racially motivated violence and ill-treatment, racial profiling, abuse of authority, frequent police brutality, and excessive force deployed by different police entities, sometimes concealed, involving both on- and off-duty officers, towards people of African descent. The government’s own data corroborated that disciplinary proceedings against the police, for example, resulted in few actual disciplinary outcomes or penalties.
Some people of African descent reported stops and searches by police as an everyday occurrence, often accompanied by beatings and particularly in areas designated as “sensitive urban zones.” Women also reported being searched by male officers and victims of police misconduct also reported retaliation for reporting or resisting police misconduct, including false criminal accusations.
Incarcerated people of African descent experience arbitrary beatings, degrading treatment and inadequate conditions of confinement. There is a lack of discharge planning, rehabilitation or re-entry programmes. People who were incarcerated also reported inadequate access to effective legal aid as a driver of ongoing injustice.
The Working Group learnt of the death of a young man of African descent incarcerated in Estabelecimento Prisional de Lisboa, initially declared as occurring from natural causes. After the family raised money to hire private counsel, approached the media, and presented inconsistencies in the case publicly, the investigation into the conduct of the prison and the cause of death was reopened.
Despite the availability of free legal aid, the Working Group learnt about financial barriers to access justice. In many cases, people of African descent experiencing racial discrimination or police violence reported inability to move their cases forward without crowdfunding initiatives to gather adequate money to hire a lawyer.
The judiciary cited limits to their ability to address racialized misconduct even when they generally acknowledged it occurred, but acknowledged the important pedagogical role the Supreme Court plays and its ability to influence how justice is understood and implemented in the country.
Stereotypes about women of African descent impact their sexual and reproductive health and human rights. People of African descent reported racialized inequities accessing and benefiting from healthcare services in Portugal. Gynecological and obstetric violence and disregard of post-partum health and mental health needs were also reported.
People of African descent reported that formal and informal barriers to access healthcare persisted, including a lack of registration and lack of assistance at times.
The Working Group noted with concern about the significant indicators of racially discriminatory practices in the education system, including issues relating to colorism and exceptionalism and discrediting research and knowledge production by people of African descent.
The Working Group was informed that the primacy of European dialect of the Portuguese language is a driver of persistent racial profiling, with serious impact to people of African descent in education. Language variety was reported as a basis to filter students, diagnose special needs, downgrade performance, and to prejudge intellectual aptitude. Children of African descent who are native speakers of Portuguese were placed in “Portuguese as a second language,” depriving children of appropriate intellectual education.
Researchers indicated that the expansion of vocational education in communities of African descent may indicate institutional racism, and the importance of an affirmative strategy to monitor risks in this regard. The Working Group heard reports that diversion of students toward vocational education created formal and informal barriers to higher education.
Decolonization of the school curricula and textbooks are long overdue, as they have inadequately addressed the violence of colonialism, enslavement and the trade and trafficking of Africans.
People of African descent also reported a lack of faculty representation.
People of African descent experience significant difficulties in securing private rentals and housing. Some city officials did not acknowledge any responsibility to ensure non-discrimination by private landlords. Illegal evictions of people of African descent took place during the pandemic.
The dismantling of social housing and relocation of families of African descent to the periphery of cities leads them farther away from the sources of their livelihood, while also disrupting longstanding support networks, relationships and extended families.
Consistently, people of African descent report the expectation that their societal role should be the same as it was during enslavement and colonization, i.e., women serving in domestic roles, and men serving as laborers and construction workers. People of African descent report racialized exclusions from certain employment, based on their names, addresses, or job applications requiring photographs.
People of African descent face consistent discrimination accessing formal employment. They are subjected to exploitation in precarious working conditions, and have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Civil society reported the racialized removal of children of African descent from their families and placement in foster care.
In asylum and refugee determination processes, people of African descent reported the imposition of European norms and standards for the recognition of LGBTQI status, the effect of which erases the LGBTQI identities of Portuguese-speaking people from African countries.
Despite Portugal’s welcoming environment for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, people of African descent report significant bureaucratic and financial barriers to integration. Undocumented people of African descent who are long-term or intergenerational residents of Portugal face particular challenges to regularize their status and to navigate Portuguese administration. The Working Group became aware of one man who continues to be incarcerated beyond the end of his criminal sentence due to intractable challenges regularizing his status.
The Working Group heard reports of racist jokes, comparisons of people of African descent to monkeys or other animals, and the general minimizing of the violence of racist humor or its role in creating an enabling environment for racist violence. It notes that street names such as
Rua das Pretas
Rua Poço dos Negros
are reflective of the colonial past.
A false dichotomy between fighting racism and empowering far-right fascist extremism has begun to characterize public discourse, including statements made to the Working Group by some public officials. This is accompanied by a false equivalence between anti-racism and fascism as purported extremes, a claim that disregards that anti-racism exists fully within existing obligations to human rights enshrined in domestic and international law.
The following recommendations are intended to assist Portugal in its efforts to combat all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance:
Portugal’s commitment to inclusion must be characterized by action. The Working Group calls upon all public officials to embrace the fight against racism and racial discrimination as a fundamental element of their work.
Portugal’s Constitution does not prohibit the development of racially disaggregated data with adequate protections for individual privacy and other concerns. Portugal could look to countries currently using racially disaggregated data for guidance.
The Government is urged to facilitate the process of reparatory justice for people of African descent.
Community experience determines the legitimacy and the effectiveness of anti-racism efforts. The impact of government programmes among communities of African descent needs to be measured.
Special measures for people of African descent are required in public administration and all other areas of society. These include incentives such as tax reliefs, or tax credits for entities that meet the stipulated goals.
Regarding the National Plan to Combat Racism and Discrimination, the Working Group calls for the development of benchmarks, targets and indicators on the basis of impact involving community feedback. Portugal should offer specific guidance to implement National Plan at municipal levels. Awareness raising should be central to these efforts.
The amendment of the Nationality Act should be complemented by institutional adjustment in the Immigration and Border Service to expedite documentation and reduction of backlog and management of the influx of cases as a result of the legal reforms.
Reporting processes for racial discrimination should be simplified and highly responsive to the urgency of these cases.
A clear and effective distinction between migration policy and policies against racism is required. To this end, the Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination should be separated from the High Commission on Migration and elevated to the status of a national equality body, with independence and financial autonomy.
The Government should, in consultation with civil society, recognize and give visibility to Africans and people of African descent who played an essential role in building Portugal, and to acknowledge the cultural, economic, political, scientific and intellectual contributions of people of African descent through the establishment of monuments, memorial sites and other means, in their honour.
The Government should expedite the amendment to Article 240 of the Penal Code. Once amended, the Government should closely monitor its implementation and effectiveness in ensuring justice for people of African descent facing racial discrimination.
An independent inquiry should be made into widespread allegations of police brutality with a view to identifying the victims and according them redress. The Government should constitute an independent oversight mechanism to address allegations of police misconduct.
The Portuguese courts should embrace and use their role as protectors of the equality and non-discrimination guarantees enshrined in Portuguese domestic law and in its international treaty obligations. In many States, courts lead revision and reform of methods to ensure the justice system actually confers racial justice.
The Government should redeploy the strong organizational culture of the police and the chain-of-command structure toward the immediate priority of stopping police brutality and excessive force toward people of African descent, instead of relying on training as an adequate intervention.
Portugal should build awareness of the right and the availability of free legal aid in various contexts.
The Agenda towards transformative change for racial justice and equality set forth by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is relevant to the context of Portugal and offers an important approach to guide reform efforts.
Following the adoption of Human Rights Council resolution 47/21, and the establishment of an international independent expert mechanism to address violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement officials including in relation to legacies of colonialism, enslavement, and the Transatlantic trade and trafficking in enslaved Africans. The Government is encouraged to extend an invitation this independent expert mechanism to conduct a country visit and develop concrete and specific interventions.
Portugal should implement recommendations from international human rights mechanisms including, inter alia, the Universal Periodic Review and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The Working Group urges the Government to adopt a systematic and more effective policy for fighting poverty among people of African descent.
The Government should monitor all health interventions among vulnerable communities, including people of African descent.
Portugal must enact new preventive and affirmative public policy to reduce racial disparities, including in the use of discretion in medical interventions, and narrow the gaps in access to health care and quality of care provided to people of African descent.
Even in the absence of racially disaggregated data, a vibrant academic literature exists to describe the situation of people of African descent. The Government should draw upon and support such research as a resource in its anti-racism efforts.
The Government should adopt measures to increase the number of teachers of African descent in educational institutions.
The Government should enact new preventive and affirmative public policy to address the attrition of children of African descent from schools.
To ensure that the vocational track does not persist to formally or informally bar students of African descent from higher education, the Government should closely track and monitor racial disparities and community satisfaction with educational programs and opportunities.
The Government should revise and develop specific curricula and corresponding teaching materials which respect and recognize history, including colonialization, enslavement, the Transatlantic trade and trafficking in Africans, the role of people of African descent in Portugal’s construction, and their contribution to the development, diversity and richness of the county.
Textbooks and educational materials should be revised, and educators should be trained to teach all Portuguese students accurate history, including with reference to Portugal’s colonialism, enslavement and trade and trafficking in enslaved Africans and their connection to present day manifestations of systemic racism.
The relocation of families of African descent from temporary residential areas should be guided by the need to maintain cohesion among these communities.
Portugal must engage in awareness raising efforts to ensure employers, educators, and public officials are fully aware that racial discrimination is prohibited.
The temporary measures taken during the pandemic to extend access of essential rights to migrants should be made permanent.
The Government should adopt strong measures to prevent and condemn the use of racial slurs, hate speech and incitement to hatred. The Working Group calls upon the Government to publicly condemn racist, Afrophobic and xenophobic acts to counter any tendency, especially by politicians, to stigmatize and negatively stereotype people of African descent or use racist propaganda for political purposes.
The Government should ensure that children are not separated from their parents on the basis of racialized evaluation of parental fitness.
Portugal’s commitments to inclusion must also embrace, rather than fight, the dynamic growth of Portuguese language variety in order to mobilize the resources, excellence, and innovation of its diverse population.
The Working Group urges the government to adequately fund and strengthen the capacity of civil society of African descent and adopt effective measures to prevent reprisals against anti-racism human rights defenders.
The Government should increase efforts to dismantle the racism, persistent erasure, and racial stereotypes prevalent in Portuguese media, and also facilitate greater representation of people of African descent in the media.
Portugal should also actively dismantle apologist and denialist narrative around colonialism and the trade and trafficking in enslaved Africans. This should be an active and rigorous consideration in public decision-making. The voices of people of African descent, as well as specifically impacted communities, are essential in this endeavor.
The campaigns against racism should include mainstream media content to ostracize words from public discourse, which are used against people of African descent. These campaigns should make it clear, to all, that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It is limited when exercised to violate the rights of others.
The Government should reject the idea that its anti-racism commitments represent extremist initiatives and import the welcoming narrative it has built in the migration space to demonstrate the important ways excellence and innovation rely on embracing diversity. Human rights should not be undermined by political considerations.
The Government’s plan to create memorials to honour people of African descent and African victims of historic tragedies should be implemented in consultation with people of African descent. An inclusive consultative process should take place to determine the future of street names that are insulting to people of African descent.
The Working Group calls upon the Government to officially launch the International Decade for People of African Descent.
The Working Group would like to reiterate its satisfaction at the Government’s willingness to engage in dialogue, cooperation and action to combat racial discrimination. We hope that our report will support the Government in this process and we express our willingness to assist in this important endeavour.