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Keynote Address by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
at the Inaugural European Parliament Commemoration of the European Day for the Abolition of the Slave Trade


“Recognizing the Past, Repairing the Present, Building the Future”

2 December 2020

Excellencies,
Colleagues, friends,

It is my honour to address this Inaugural Commemoration of the European Day for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, with the theme: “Recognizing the Past, Repairing the Present, Building the Future.” I commend the European Parliament’s Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup for organizing this event alongside the European Network of People of African Descent and the European Network against Racism.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to gather force and claim human lives, its accompanying social and economic crisis threatens to unleash new waves of poverty and inequalities, and to revert decades of hard-won development gains.

This year will be remembered as a pivotal point in the struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, marked by global protests at the killing of George Floyd in police custody.

Immense global solidarity to victims of racial violence has galvanized people to protest against racism and racial discrimination and prompted important discussions on the legacies of enslavement and colonialism.

It also triggered an urgent debate at the Human Rights Council in June -- and the subsequent adoption of a resolution mandating my Office to prepare a comprehensive report on systemic racism and human rights violations against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies. As mandated by the resolution, the report, which will be presented next June, will also focus on accountability, redress for victims, and government responses to anti-racism peaceful protests. Today’s timely interventions will inform its preparation.

Racial discrimination is, indeed, a pervasive threat and human rights violation.

The link between past and present forms and manifestations of racism was explicitly made in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by consensus at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, in 2001. In fact, the Durban World Conference represents a milestone in our common fight against these grave challenges.

The Conference addressed the deep historical roots of contemporary racism, acknowledged that slavery and the slave trade are – as should always have been – crimes against humanity, and analysed the legacy of the some of the most appalling chapters of our human history. The Durban Declaration states that slavery and the slave trade are “among the major sources of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” It also affirms that “Africans, people of African descent, people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of colonialism and continue to be victims of its consequences”, highlighting that “the effects of these structures and practices have contributed to lasting social and economic inequalities.”

With that in mind, “Recognition, Justice and Development”, is the theme of the International Decade for people of African descent. The Programme of Activities of the Decade, which I am honoured to be coordinator, outlines the importance of recognition - including with the promotion of the culture, history and heritage of people of African descent and through education, research and its inclusion in schools’ curricula.

Recognition is indeed the first step towards comprehensively addressing the scourge of racism and racial discrimination that still afflicts us today.

COVID-19 is a stark example. Widespread inequalities and systemic discrimination meant racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They are also a large part of the 40 million people still victims of contemporary forms of slavery.

Among the key root causes exposing people to slavery is indeed pervasive and long-standing racial discrimination, which is deeply connected to unequal access to justice, education, health services, land, livelihoods or decent employment opportunities.

Excellencies,

Respect for human dignity, equal rights and non-discrimination are the basis of human rights, as reflected by the first two articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is no coincidence that race and colour are the first grounds of discrimination mentioned in Article 2. As we all know, not only was racism among the defining aspects of the Second World War, its end was also a departure point for independence movements around the world. Movements that aimed at breaking from the colonialism of Western powers that had for centuries institutionalized enslavement of Africans and people of African descent.

In December 1965, the United Nations General Assembly established the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Its purpose was “to adopt all necessary measures for speedily eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations, and to prevent and combat racist doctrines and practices in order to promote understanding between races and to build an international community free from all forms of racial segregation and racial discrimination.”

The 2001 World Conference in Durban, followed by the 2009 Review Conference, helped the international community to reflect on where action had been insufficient -- in what areas and ways we needed to do more to create just and fair societies that are free of racism and racial discrimination.

At the international level, various steps have been taken by Member States, UN human rights mechanisms, and the overall UN system, regional organizations, national human rights institutions and civil society. These include legislative measures, national actions plans against discrimination and national monitoring and complaint mechanisms. Other measures to strengthen national capacity to combat racial discrimination include data collection and research, community engagement and awareness-raising, educational and outreach activities.

We have seen a number of positive steps taken in the European Union, such as the 2018 release of the first ever report by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), documenting the situation of people of African descent at the region.

The Report “Being Black in Europe” examined the experiences of almost 6,000 people of African descent in 12 EU Member States, concluding that racial discrimination was pervasive in all spheres of their lives. I commend the subsequent adoption by the European Parliament of a resolution on the fundamental rights of people of African descent in Europe. It was the first time that this Parliament publicly recognized the specific form of racism and discrimination, fuelled by historical abuses and negative stereotyping, that people of African descent face. I also welcome the launch of the International Decade for people of African descent in some European countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, following the visits of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

Yet, it is clear that the depth and reach of changes made across countries and countries have not been sufficient. At the Human Rights Council’s urgent debate last June, I called upon the Council to look into today’s racial violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing, all of which lie behind our collective failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism. As the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism has underscored, “many contemporary manifestations of racial discrimination must be understood as a continuation of insufficiently remediated historical forms and structures of racial injustice and inequality.”

In this regard, the recent launch of the European Commission’s anti-racism action plan of the for the next five years is significant, as it acknowledges colonialism and enslavement as historical roots of racism. By declaring enslavement a crime against humanity and by calling the 2nd of December to be the European Day for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the European Union is taking an important step to address racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

In practical terms, this commendable process will require making amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms. Comprehensive and inclusive consultation with those affected should lead to justice, accountability and reconciliation.

The Special Rapporteur on Racism, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and the Durban follow-up mechanisms have all called for reparatory justice. In a report to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights also referred to the importance of memorialization processes.

All such processes should stimulate civic engagement, critical thinking and discussions about the representation of the past, while also highlighting its contemporary consequences, like persisting racial stereotypes, discrimination, exclusion or violence.

As this event highlights, recognizing the past is the first step to repairing the present and key to building the future.

Excellencies,
Friends,

Next year, we will mark both the 20th Anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as well as the mid-point of the International Decade for People of African Descent.

I call on the EU Member States to support the establishment of the Permanent Forum on people of African descent. This would be a remarkable achievement of the mid-term review, and a steppingstone to another important objective of the International Decade - the development of a draft United Nations declaration on the promotion and full respect of human rights of people of African descent.

This is of utmost importance.

The fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance is as crucial and urgent as ever – online and offline. It is deeply concerning that discrimination is being further amplified through digital technology, often even by public figures and authorities.

States need to demonstrate stronger political will, backed by concrete action, to effectively tackle structural and systemic racism and racial discrimination entrenched in societies.

The event today shows us the urgency to emphasize our common humanity and to repair any legacies that would suggest otherwise.

Thank you for standing up for human rights.