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Discrimination in the Americas - Challenges and good practices
Latin American Centre, School of Global and Area Studies, Oxford University
Inaugural Main Seminar, Trinity Term 2021


Statement by United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

27 April 2021

Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson, who has been a trailblazer for women in academia, helping to fight the widespread and structural gender discrimination we will be discussing today,

Professor Timothy Power,

Professor Eduardo Posada-Carbo,

Dear students,

Colleagues, friends,

I am pleased to address you today.

This past year has changed our lives in ways we still struggle to understand.

But in the midst of so many uncertainties, one thing comes clear: rarely have we seen such a powerful demonstration of the value of human rights.

COVID-19 and its impacts have been feeding off and exacerbating gaps in human rights protection; fault lines built on profound, intersecting and structural discrimination and inequalities.

The pandemic took the whole world by storm, but the tempest hit hardest in the Americas.

The Americas are close to hitting the terribly sad mark of 1.5 million lives lost to COVID-19, with three countries in the region – the United States, Brazil and Mexico -- having the world's highest absolute death tolls.

The socio-economic impact is no less distressing.

A recent report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, shows that by the end of 2020, 33.7% of people in the region was living in poverty. That means 209 million people, 22 million more than the previous year. Extreme poverty reached levels not seen in the last 20 years, reaching 12.5% of the population.

According to the International Monetary Fund, with a downturn of 7% in 2020, the region had the "sharpest" economic contraction in the world, by far exceeding the global economy's slowdown of 3.3 percent.

The numbers are staggering.

And behind them are staggering human tragedies.

As in the rest of the world, while the virus does not discriminate, its impacts do.

People whose voices have been historically and systematically silenced suffer the worst from the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

Indeed, the brunt of both the health and the socio-economic crises is being borne by those who have not reaped the development benefits experienced by many countries in the region.

Those who have been left behind – and are being pushed further behind.

Indigenous peoples, people of African descent, LGBTI people, migrants, people with disabilities, and those deprived of their liberty are amongst those who have been the most affected.

Overall, COVID-19 has impacted the most women and girls in all their diversity. It has been further shrinking their leadership, voice and their space and challenging hard-won gains on gender equality.

This is not due to any inherent vulnerability, but rather to centuries of pre-existing discrimination and inequality.

Like in previous health crises, the pandemic has been accompanied by a surge in gender-based violence, with lockdown measures leading to a marked increase in domestic violence, rape and femicide. At the same time, it has been more difficult for victims to obtain the services they need – and justice.

States in the region have responded with several initiatives, such as national campaigns to raise awareness, facilitate complaints and to support victims; reinforced access to psychosocial and legal services for women and LGTBI people; and an increase in the number of shelters. Some of these have been supported by my Office.

While I welcome the regional policies aimed at combatting gender-based violence, they remain widely insufficient to break down barriers and obstacles women face to fulfil their rights in all aspects of life.

Still abiding by patriarchal social norms, women and girls in the region continue to shoulder disproportionate caregiving responsibilities.

Public policies related to their economic security in the context of the pandemic have been far more limited, including regarding the unpaid care and domestic work they overwhelmingly perform. This underscores the lack of State recognition of the pre-existing structural inequalities that place women in conditions of greater social and economic vulnerability.

Women are overall more affected by poverty, stand at the wrong end of the digital gender divide, receive lower wages and are more frequently employed in the informal economy, having fewer social protections.

According to the World Bank, female workers in Latin America and the Caribbean were 44 percent more likely than male workers to lose their jobs at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. As the pandemic developed, female-intensive sectors, such as trade, personal services, education, and hospitality, sustained 56 percent of all job losses.

This disproportionate impact also applies to high-income countries. In the US, about 2.5 million women have either lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, in what has been termed by Vice President Harris a "mass exodus of women from the labour force".

Moreover, according to UN Women, around 18 million women in Latin America and the Caribbean lost access to modern contraception due to COVID-restrictions and faced additional obstacles to their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Rights which were already restricted throughout the region, particularly for marginalised women and girls.

And in all spheres, we cannot lose sight of the intersectional perspective.

We do not have to look very deep to see that the most affected are women and girls who suffer double, triple or multiple layers of discrimination, including due to being indigenous or because of their race, age, disability, migration and socio-economic status, sexual orientation and gender identity, nationality and religion.

Colleagues,

2020 has also shown us how systemic racism is behind the pandemic's disproportionate impact on groups facing racial discrimination, including people of African descent.

Similar to the structural nature of discrimination against women, systemic racism is based on deeply entrenched forms of racial discrimination grounded in harmful and racial stereotypes, bias, societal hierarchies and economic exploitation.

Many of these often find their roots in the crimes of the past - enslavement, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.

To recognize and effectively address their legacy is essential.

Education plays a key role.

I encourage schools to discuss the legacy of these past crimes, including its linkages to present day manifestations of racism, as well as history of Africa prior to colonialism and the contributions of people of African descent to modern societies.

The pandemic has also had a severe impact on the rights of migrants, who are particularly vulnerable to stigma and discrimination -- and on many occasions have been left out of the response.

In addition, the socio-economic crisis has exacerbated the causes that force people to leave their countries of origin.

We are seeing an upsurge of migrants in movements the region, especially of unaccompanied minors and those fleeing poverty or violence in countries in Central America and in Cuba, Haiti, Mexico and Venezuela.

Under the argument of preventing and containing the pandemic, several States have decided to close their borders and strengthen migration control operations.

The situation has increased irregular migration, forcing people to seek more dangerous routes and increasing their risks of being victims of migrant smuggling networks.

The implementation of stricter border measures must be carried out in a manner that guarantees the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their status.

And, in addition to the heavy toll on older people, COVID-19 has magnified existing inequalities impacting the young.

The Global Survey on Youth and COVID-19 led by the International Labour Organization, in partnership with my Office, civil society organizations and other partners, stressed the deep and disproportionate impact of the pandemic on young people, particularly young women and girls, younger youth and those in lower income countries.

Dear friends,

The scenario is indeed grim.

But I do see a silver lining.

These long-standing fractures and grievances have become powerful vehicles for social change.

In the past years, protests in the region have denounced gender-based violence, and a lack of reproductive health services, institutional racism and discriminatory access to social and economic rights.

They have contributed, for example, to legislative changes relating to access to safe and legal abortions in Argentina, a referendum opening the path to a Constitution in my own country, Chile, and to a new momentum, from the US to the world, to combat systemic racism and police brutality.

The killing of George Floyd has become emblematic of the pattern of racial injustice faced by people of African descent in many countries across the region – and the globe.

I welcome the recent verdict in this crystal-clear case. Any other result would have been a travesty of justice.

Having said that, for it to be a true turning point, for us to really achieve racial justice and equality, we must decisively uproot the entrenched legacy of discriminatory policies and systems.

This coming June, at the request of the Human Rights Council, I will present a report on systemic racism and use of force violations by law enforcement.

The report will present a transformative agenda for racial justice, which, I hope will contribute to assisting States to dismantle systemic racism. I also hope it will contribute to end impunity for police violence; to reimagine policing and reform the criminal justice system; and confront the legacies of the past by adopting measures to achieve reparatory justice.

The link between past and present forms and manifestations of racism and racial discrimination was explicitly made in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by consensus twenty years ago.

This anniversary, as well as this year's mid-term review of the International Decade for People of African Descent provide important opportunities for an honest assessment of what has been done so far and for us to recommit to our common actions against racism.

Colleagues,

The next few years will indeed be challenging.

But the pandemic has opened possibilities for transformative change.

For that, we need to ensure that social valves exist to voice opposition and social demands in a peaceful way.

Unfortunately, we have seen governments in the region using sanitary measures to stifle demonstrations and to undermine social movements.

From my own experience and the lessons of history, I am convinced that participation is not only a right. It is the way out of this crisis.

Women, for example, are largely absent from decision-making spheres, including in responding to the pandemic. In the Americas, they are only 29 per cent of members in COVID-19 task forces.

And I cannot over emphasize the importance of human rights defenders in all their diversity. Those that speak out or work to advance human rights, and who sadly continue facing grave threats in Latin America and the Caribbean.

With 264 killings last year, the region is the deadliest and most dangerous for human rights defenders, especially those working to defend their land, territory and the environment.

This is tied to the discrimination that indigenous peoples have faced over generations, placing their lives and livelihoods under threat. A discrimination which has been exacerbated by projects related to the extraction of natural resources, without free, prior and informed consent.

Just last week, and heavily due to the role played by social movements in the region, a new landmark treaty to protect environmental defenders has entered into force in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Escazú Agreement is an unprecedented regional treaty on access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters. It establishes obligations for its 11 ratifying States to ensure the protection of both the environment and its defenders.

I commend the States that ratified the agreement and encourage all others in the region to promptly do so.

Dear students,

As we saw, inequality and discrimination are two of the biggest challenges of our time, stretching across all spheres of life.

The pandemic did not create them.

Exclusionary policies, rather than inclusive ones, have been tolerated in the region for generations.

Patriarchy, misogyny, racism and discrimination have been inter-twinned in the institutional fabric.

That is why we cannot aspire to go back to a so-called normal that led us here in the first place.

We must recover better.

But how do we do that?

We recover better by creating more inclusive systems that address the root causes of the challenges we have talked about, and that make us more resilient to the ones we will undoubtedly still face, including the climate emergency.

By prioritising systems that realise the right to social protection and health to all, including universal health coverage. Systems that in many countries in the region have been eroded by austerity policies.

By encouraging meaningful public participation in the development of policies that will be more effective because they will be based on the realities and needs of the population.

And by all means, recovering better requires eliminating all forms of discrimination.

That requires awareness.

We need to look beyond the tip of the iceberg.

We must understand the roots of today's inequalities and the unredressed discrimination upon which they have grown.

Recovering better will mean recovering different.

More inclusive. More equal. More just.

And that can only be done together and comprehensively.

A silo approach to combatting discrimination is a major obstacle to sustainable progress.

The interdependence of women's human rights, for example, cannot be overlooked.

Without eliminating cultural stereotypes and barriers to sexual and reproductive rights, there will be no lasting progress in women's equal standing in all aspects of life, including economic and political spheres.

Without a holistic and inter-sectional approach, measures will, for instance, overlook the needs of rural women, LGBTI women and migrant women, among others.

In the same way, and to varying degrees in different countries, the experience of systemic racism by people of African descent is intrinsically shaped by their other identities including sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, migration and socio-economic status, disability and religion.

For this purpose, we need a 'whole-of-government' approach that takes into consideration the intersecting and cumulative impact of systemic discrimination across all human rights.

But more than that. We need a "whole of society" approach.

And in this, dear students, you have much to contribute.

Online and offline, young people have been inspiring the world by standing up for universal rights.

The right to a healthy planet and an inclusive future.

The right to participate in the decisions that affect your lives.

The right to live free from discrimination and deprivation.

You inspire and encourage me.

Don't give up.

We all have seen the price of failing to protect human rights.

I hope in our lifetimes we can all see the prize of protecting it.

I count on you to take this forward.

Thank you.