Equal figures, equal societies

Participants in the seminar on data collection to promote racial equality © OHCHRIn Latin America, national censuses face a particular challenge of accurately reflecting the number and situation of historically discriminated groups such as people of African descent and indigenous peoples.

UN experts, academia, human rights institutions, national statistical institutions, representatives of Governments from Latin America and the Caribbean and of indigenous peoples and people of African descent met in Rio, Brazil to discuss data collection and the use of indicators to promote and monitor racial equality and non-discrimination in the region.

The seminar highlighted that the number of Afro-descendents and indigenous peoples has frequently been underestimated in national censuses as a result of social exclusion dating from the colonial era. The 2010 round-of-census seeks to collect information on the socio demographic situation of these groups, in order to better monitor their human rights situation.

National censuses are vital tools for data collection on the situation and needs of the population of all countries. But without accurate data it is very difficult for governments to tailor policies and implement programmes to address particular needs. This oversight has negatively impacted on some of Latin America’s populations and their enjoyment of fundamental human rights such as access to housing, healthcare and education.

Data disaggregated on the basis of ethnicity is increasingly considered relevant to the development of their efforts to promote the rights of all individuals in their jurisdiction.

Furthermore, according to Mr. Amerigo Incalcaterra, OHCHR Representative for South America, disaggregated data provides baseline information on the situation of marginalized groups. This information can form the basis for social policies, such as the adoption of affirmative action, as was the case in Brazil and Ecuador. Collecting these data may also help evaluate whether anti-discrimination policies are effective and if they need adjustment.

History, however, has shown that ethnic and other sensitive data can be misused. Statistics compiled for other purposes, or for that very purpose, have been used to persecute strata of populations. Individuals or groups have been exposed to discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization or even harassment because of references to particular characteristics.

“From a global perspective, we cannot separate the positive effect that disaggregated data can offer to societies from the risk of misusing such a vast collection of information”, said Christian Salazar, OHCHR representative in Colombia. “In the 21st century there is also a risk of violation of the people’s civic and political rights, based on the massive tracking and compilation of personal data by States; for example, in the framework of the national security doctrine or the war on terrorism.”

Nowadays, data protection laws which regulate the collection, production and dissemination of personal information attempt to control and minimise its misuse. Furthermore, data collection practices can be designed, implemented and systematized in a manner which aims at preserving individuals’ rights to privacy and self-identification.

“We must ask ourselves how much information about its citizens does a State need and how we can make sure that such information is not used to violate human rights”, Salazar added.

Proposed solutions to guarantee the safeguard of persons’ rights at the seminar included consent from individuals on the collection and usage of their personal information, anonymity and secure storage of the data collected, among others.

19 May 2010