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Regional Meeting for Africa on the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Dakar, 23 October 2019

H.E. Mr. Malick Sall, Minister of Justice of the Republic of Senegal,
H.E. Ambassador Mr. Kwesi Quartey, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission,
Excellencies,
Colleagues, Friends,

Bonjour. Salam alekum. AMNA MBEUGTé, Tééw Fii tay ak yènne, si khéw khéw bii.

I am happy to be with you in the country of “teranga” – a complex and beautiful vision of the world that is steeped in generosity and hospitality, the warmth of fellow feeling, and the deep partnership of solidarity. 

Last month, at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, President Macky Sall pointed out that “Africa’s wisdom exalts peaceful coexistence and respect for diversity, through an effort of conciliation which establishes the rule of peace, where every human being lives in peace with herself or himself, and with her or his neighbours." This statement is at the heart of our planned discussions, for respect for diversity is linked to peaceful coexistence.  

I am grateful to the Government of Senegal for hosting our event in this country.

I am also pleased that my Office is organizing this meeting with the African Union Commission, and I thank Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and Ambassador Kwesi Quartey for their unflagging support for the International Decade for People of African descent. 

Over the next two days, we will focus on African perspectives on the Decade, and on the human rights of people of African descent. 

We will consider the theme of recognition, which calls to mind the depth and breadth of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent, both now and in the past. Less than 10 kilometres away from this room, Gorée Island is an eternal reminder of a terrible crime against humanity which began four hundred years ago: the trade in enslaved Africans. 

As the Durban Declaration acknowledged, "slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity, not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims". At Durban, States further acknowledged that these are among the major sources of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance", and that Africans and people of African descent, among others, "continue to be victims of their consequences.” 

Places of memory like Gorée remind us that these crimes must never be forgotten. They constitute a valuable marker of our common history and must be recognized and preserved. 

Recognition is about acknowledging and understanding, concretely, the scale and scope of racism and racial discrimination faced by people of African descent. It is about making Afro-descendants and Africans – and their achievements, cultures and history – visible in schools’ curricula and textbooks; in the media; in the arts; in museums; in the workplace; and throughout public life. It is about recognizing and addressing the multiple forms of discrimination faced by women of African descent, both in history, and in many societies today.

I am glad to see that at this meeting, a panel will discuss ways to acknowledge the history of African civilisations; historical contributions by Africans; and recovery of the history of the enslavement of Africans, through initiatives such as the remarkable UNESCO Slave Route Project. 

Our second theme is justice. There are many converging aspects to this theme: issues of restitution of cultural artefacts; reparatory justice; access to justice for people of African descent, including fair trial guarantees and equality before the law; and measures to address structural discrimination against people of African descent – as noted by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and many other authorities.  The Programme of Activities of the Decade specifically calls for prevention and accountability for all human rights violations affecting people of African descent, including violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to development. 

The Decade's third theme is development.  The Programme of Activities calls on States to “remove all obstacles that prevent the equal enjoyment of all human rights, economic, social, cultural, civil and political, including the right to development of people of African descent." Underdevelopment of communities of people of African descent needs to be reversed in partnership with the people involved. This must include not only measures targeted to reduce poverty, but also initiatives to improve education, employment, health and the entire spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. 

All human rights contribute to sustainable development, as the 2030 Agenda and the AU's Agenda 2063 both recognise.  Discussions at this meeting will certainly consider the Sustainable Development Goals. The panel on Development will also look at building and expanding bridges between Africa and the African Diaspora – a theme that is particularly resonant in my own region, and one which can also help address some development issues. 

Excellencies, 

The Decade provides a framework for all of us - including African States and stakeholders – to take action to improve the lives of people of African descent.  It is also an opportunity to increase our support to current processes for the development of standards and norms aimed at combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. It is an opportunity to actively engage in, and lead, these approaches at the international level.  

For example, discussions are currently underway at the General Assembly for the operationalization of the Permanent Forum on people of African descent, which should soon begin its work. 

Two other standard-setting exercises with longer-term implications are also underway, including the drafting of the United Nations declaration on the promotion and full respect of human rights of people of African descent, and a draft additional protocol to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, criminalizing acts of a racist and xenophobic nature. 

We will also begin soon to evaluate our efforts to combat racism and racial discrimination as we commence preparations for the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, in 2021. 

All these inter-governmental processes need leadership from Africa. 

Nationally and regionally, this Decade constitutes a strategic leverage point to increase our cooperation for the realisation of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of people of African descent, and fulfil their right to full and equal participation in all aspects of society.  It is meant to improve the lives of people of African descent everywhere. 

We need your strong support and committed engagement, to enable the Decade to effect real changes in people’s lives. In terms of concrete actions, Governments have pledged to take decisive steps to set up economic, social and cultural policies and programmes for equality and non-discrimination, with the participation of people of African descent, among other important commitments. It is time to realise these promises. 

The Decade also requires greater visibility and implementation on this continent, which is the motherland of humanity and a vital part of the heritage of all people of African descent around the world. 

As Coordinator of the Decade, my Office works with numerous partners to implement the Programme of Activities. With the UN's Department of Global Communications and UNESCO, we are carrying out an awareness-raising campaign on the Decade. We also have a successful fellowship programme which brings 12 young people of African descent from every region to Geneva every year to learn about the anti-racism work of the UN.

We also provide advice to Governments and carry out thematic research, to increase understanding about the nature and complexity of discrimination faced by people of African descent; and we maintain an online anti-discrimination database.  

We need to extend our outreach and involve more, and diverse, partners to improve the situation of people of African descent all over the world. We need to create stronger regional and national momentum among States, civil society and other partners, to implement the Programme of Activities over the six remaining years.

In this context, I am particularly glad to note the very active support of the African Union to the Decade and its goals, in the context of a continuously strengthening partnership between my Office and the AU. 

Last month the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights signed a formal agreement with us to cooperate and collaborate in areas of common interest, and in February we formalised an agreement with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Next month I look forward to signing an MOU with the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. 

The overarching objective of these frameworks is to enhance protection of the rights of all Africans, and its synergy with the goals of the International Decade are clear.  The Ten Year Action and Implementation Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human and Peoples’ Rights (2016-2026) also provides us with many bridges to implement the Programme of Activities of the International Decade for People of African Descent.

Excellencies, 

This meeting is not solely the preserve of Governments and diplomats; it is about people. It brings together Africans and the African Diaspora, often referred to as the “Sixth Region” of Africa; and I am also very glad to see the participation of Afro-descendant civil society groups today, to further engage with us – and with each other – to work together on implementing the objectives of the Decade.  

I understand that there will be an open space “youth lab” for young people to connect, contribute and reach out to their peers around the world about the Decade. And I see many young people in our audience. I very much welcome your presence and participation. We need your views – including your critical views – and your energy. This is about your future – your lives, and your rights. 

We need young people of African descent to raise awareness, learn and share their history, stand up for their rights; and write their own stories – especially in this digital media age. 

The International Decade should serve not only as a framework to remember, recognize and honour the past, but also as a platform to look forward to build a future for all the daughters and sons of Africa, wherever they live – empowering them to meaningfully contribute and take their rightful place in leading their societies.

I wish you all dynamic and thoughtful deliberations on the Decade, and I look forward to the outcome of this meeting.

Thank you.