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Statements Special Procedures

Press Statement by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit to Panama, 14- 18 January 2013

18 January 2013

PANAMA CITY, 18 January 2013. The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent wishes to thank the Government of Panama for its invitation to visit the country to study the situation of the Afrodescendant population and for its cooperation in the preparation and conduct of our visit. We wish to stress that the views expressed in this statement are of a preliminary nature and are therefore not comprehensive. Our findings and recommendations will be developed more fully when we report on our visit to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

We wish to emphasize that our focus on the Afrodescendant population is not done without recognition of the overarching socio-economic and political context within which they exist.

We are aware, for example, of the historical circumstances that created what is now Panama. The story of people of African descent in this country is rich in diversity. It begins with the story of conquest, colonization, plunder which so affected the indigenous peoples, and the transatlantic trade in enslaved African captives, which is a crime against humanity. This trajectory has defined not only the history of Panama, but also that of other Latin American and Caribbean countries. The descendants of enslaved Africans were joined by another set of people of African descent - Afro-Caribbean labour migrants who were recruited from Jamaica and other parts of the British and French Caribbean to build the railway and the Panama Canal. Into this mix were added Afrodescendant migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. Despite the results of the 2010 census, which placed Afrodescendants at 9.2% of the population, Afrodescendants are obviously more than one-third of the total Panamanian population.

During the course of our official visit, between 14 and 18 January, we had an opportunity to meet with numerous senior government officials, the Office of the Ombudsperson, the National Commission against Discrimination, agencies, funds and programmes of the United Nations and to speak directly with representatives and members of the Afrodescendant community, including civil society organizations, academics, human rights activists and members of youth and community groups from Panama City and Colón. Our visit allowed us a unique opportunity for dialogue in relation to our mandate on the promotion and protection of the rights of people of African descent.

It must be acknowledged that the Panamanian government has made some efforts to address certain aspects of the disparities faced by the Afrodescendant population. This has been done through provisions of its Constitution and legislation, such as Law N. 16, which established the National Commission against Discrimination, in 2002, and the Presidential Decree which created the Executive Secretariat of the Black Ethnic Council. The Working Group welcomes and encourages other reforms such as the accusatory penal system and initiatives by lawmakers to criminalize racial discrimination. We encourage the National Assembly to consider seriously taking steps to make racial discrimination a legal offence and making the declaration envisaged under article 14 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which allows presenting individual complaints to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The preliminary results of our wide-ranging consultations and meetings are now presented below. In general, we found that in Panama, as in many other countries, contemporary forms of racial,,structural and institutional discrimination against Afrodescendant communities exist and are deeply rooted in the history of Panama. This is evidenced by poverty, inequality, marginalization and inadequate standard of living affecting them. We found a stark contrast between their situation and the high economic growth and progress in many areas of the country. The question that springs to our mind is “Why does this wealth not reach the Afrodescendant population?”

Our concern therefore is the unequal distribution of wealth and the lack of opportunities for Afrodescendant communities. This reflects that the legacy of enslavement, reinforced by the negative aspects of the open market economy, contribute to the stigmatization against Afrodescendants and have a profound impact on their daily lives.

As one Afrodescendant child told us on our visit to Colón, “our schools are awful, we do not have places to play, teachers treat us badly and we face violence in our houses and in the streets.” Inhabitants of Colón also expressed their fear of further expansion of the Free Zone leading to possible displacements. They also mentioned that the contribution of Colón to the national revenues is not improving the development and economic situation of the community in Colón itself.

We heard from Afrodescendants that they feel that their concerns are ignored, their lives less valued, that they are statistically “invisible”, and that government policies dedicated to their needs are not achieving the desired improvements to their situations. Demographic data collected by the 2010 census, should be further disaggregated to allow access to information highlighting the living conditions of the Afrodescendant population.

Other concerns are the denial of the existence of racism and the persistent conception of “crisol de razas” in the country. We were told by an Afrodescendant representative that it is important to deconstruct this myth, which is based on “the idea that there is no racism in the country, because Panama is composed of several ethnicities and cultures, which are melted into one happy combination.”

Our visit to Nueva Esperanza and Joyita detention centres have convinced us that gross inequalities exist in Panamanian society. We would like to express our serious concerns about the disproportionate presence of Afrodescendants in prison populations and the inhuman and degrading living conditions, which impinge upon the human dignity of inmates and in some cases of the prison staff. In particular, we found high levels of overcrowding, shortage of staff, poor infrastructure, unsanitary conditions, lack of medical services and recreation facilities. Prolonged pretrial detention and lack of separation between accused and convicted persons were also observed in several instances. Such conditions are clearly not in compliance with internationally accepted standards for the humane treatment of detainees. The State of Panama should take all necessary measures to put an end to the violence and excessive use of force at the hands of law enforcement officials, racial profiling and discrimination in the administration of the justice system.

The model young offenders’ institution in Panama City should be replicated all over Panama as needed. Young offenders who must leave these institutions for age reasons should be transferred to appropriate rehabilitation centres and not transferred to adult detention facilities.

We express our concern about the particular vulnerable situation of young men of African descent. They encounter barriers in access to and completion of quality education, lack of employment opportunities which results in social exclusion. They are also victims of racial profiling, enter the prison population far too early and the gang culture is taking the place of a socially responsible state system.

Women of African descent have spoken to us of their experiences, the violence committed against them, including sexual violence, the early unwanted pregnancies, the difficulties they have endured on a daily basis and the challenges of their lives as women and mothers living under poverty. Theirs is a story that must be told and a situation that must be resolved.
Political participation and representation are key if one is to achieve equality and non-discrimination, enabling groups facing discrimination to have a voice in decision making bodies and to ensure that their issues are adequately represented at all levels; and we urge greater ethnic diversity at the political level.

During our meetings with institutions of the State, including the Ministry of Security, Labour, Justice, Interior, Health, and Education, governmental officials presented their work on equality and non-discrimination. However, the reality is that real improvement in the living conditions of people of African descent is hard to identify and resources and outputs are failing to match the expectations and needs of Afrodescendants. It is evident that the financial resources allocated are too often failing to trickle down to the communities who urgently need them.

We are concerned at the possibility of social conflict re-emerging as a consequence of social and economic disparities, and we encourage the Government of Panama to put in place without delay programmes to promote national integration, elimination of inequalities and poverty alleviation addressed to the Afrodescendant population and thereby lessen social tension. We note the efforts made by the Office of the Ombudsperson, particularly its work on complaint cases concerning racial discrimination, including through the establishment of the anti-discrimination unit and the appointment of the members of the National Commission against Discrimination. Regrettably, much remains to be done to ensure that these efforts prove effective in delivering timely and appropriate measures of protection. We encourage the Office of the Ombudsperson to continue working with the United Nations human rights mechanisms.

We hope that Panama will quickly take concrete actions to effect changes that will have a more positive impact on the lives of those who are currently suffering discrimination. In this regard, awareness raising among the population as a whole, coupled with the introduction of necessary legislative reforms promoting equality and the allocation of sufficient budget, in particular in Colón and Bocas del Toro, are crucial to bringing about changes in addressing racism and racial discrimination in the country.

Finally the team wishes to thank the Regional Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for its support in this mission.

Panama City, 18 January 2013

The United Nation Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent