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Statements Special Procedures

Opening Address by Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the 14th Session of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent

31 March 2014

31 March 2014

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my pleasure be here with you at the opening of the 14th Session of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

Since its first session in 2002, the Working Group has made many valuable contributions to expanding the substantive discussion on various human rights topics relevant to people of African descent around the world. Its recommendations have had great impact in the fight against the historic and continued inequality faced by people of African descent. I particularly welcome the fact that the Working Group has started dealing with allegation letters and urgent appeals. This will, without doubt, have a positive impact. 

The Working Group has decided to focus this session on an issue of great importance to people of African descent: access to justice. This is in line with the theme for the Decade for People of African Descent that is planned to begin in 2015. I trust that the findings of your Group will bring more clarity and perspective to the issues that hinder equal access to justice by people of African descent, and that they will contribute to the intergovernmental discussions in relation to the Decade.

Access to justice for all is an essential component of the promotion and protection of human rights, and a cornerstone of the rule of law. Both internationally and at the domestic level, respect and protection of human rights can only be guaranteed if effective judicial remedies are available when an individual’s rights are violated.

By access to justice, we mean that every individual must be able to bring a claim before an appropriate court, judicial or administrative mechanism, and have it heard and adjudicated with fairness and justice, without discrimination. The administration of justice must also be subject to adequate review. And there should be legal aid for the needy, so that justice is not available only to the rich.

Historically, the human rights of people of African descent have frequently been violated. In many cases, discrimination continues to take a heavy toll. It is therefore particularly important that we ensure that people of African descent enjoy equal access to justice, and equal protection of the law in all stages of the legal and judicial process. This includes not only interaction with the police, but also presentation of court cases and sentencing.

Despite guarantees in international and national law, many victims of racial discrimination are still unable to obtain remedies for wrongful acts through their domestic institutions.   In fact, as this Working Group has found, some of the most important challenges that people of African descent face relate to discriminatory treatment by the very institutions that are supposed to administer justice.

Too often, judicial and law-enforcement bodies — which should be primary forces in opposing and preventing racism — fail to uphold justice and equality, and instead mirror the prejudices of the society they serve. The administration of justice can regrettably be a source of discrimination. In some States, racial discrimination persists among law-enforcement officials; in the application of the law; and in the functioning of the penal system.

This contributes to various groups being unfairly over-represented among persons under detention. In many cases, members of ethnic minorities often suffer torture, ill-treatment and harassment at the hands of the law enforcement officials. And when their rights are violated, recourse to institutions of justice is often a distant possibility.

Compounded forms of discrimination can mean that certain persons of African descent – such as women and girls; children and young people; persons with disabilities; and migrants – can face even more challenging obstacles to justice. Women of African descent may, for example, suffer physical or verbal violence on the part of judicial authorities.

Racial profiling — which drives high rates of police violence, arrests and imprisonment, as well as a lack of access to justice — leaves young men of African descent facing multiple forms of discrimination in many countries. The consequences of this can be fatal.

Dear colleagues, this is unacceptable.
Another racially discriminatory practice commonly seen in the application of the law are longer sentences meted out to people of African descent, compared to other individuals who have committed the same offense. In such cases, even if the law is not discriminatory, defendants are denied the right to a fair trial. This puts them at increased risk of harsh punishments, including, in some countries, the death penalty.

This failure to ensure that everyone has equal access to justice continues to be a matter of great concern to the United Nations and its mechanisms.

The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance has found that institutional discrimination in justice systems often has a disproportionate impact on people of African descent. Such difficulty in accessing domestic judicial remedies and complaint mechanisms contributes to the persistence of racism and patterns of exclusion. Together with lack of sensitivity to racial discrimination on the part of justice system operators – and the failure to make such operators accountable – this absence of judicial guarantees aggravates the resignation or resentment of the discriminated groups.

In 2005, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination adopted its General Recommendation No. 31 on the prevention of racial discrimination in the administration and functioning of the criminal justice system. Among other points, the Committee recommended that States should supply legal information to persons belonging to the most vulnerable social groups, since they are often unaware of their rights. It also recommended that States should promote free legal help and advice centres, legal information centres and centres for conciliation and mediation for disadvantaged populations, in partnership with legal professionals and non‑governmental organizations specialized in protecting the rights of marginalized communities.

In 2012, your Working Group also stressed the need for people of African descent who have been victims of racism to receive such information and assistance, including legal aid and, if necessary, the assistance of an interpreter.

Many States have adopted domestic laws that condemn and punish acts of racial discrimination. Some have additionally adopted national action plans. But despite these advances, there is still a long way to go before we achieve full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent.

The Working Group is mandated to propose measures to ensure full and effective access to the justice system by people of African descent. I trust you will identify the factors that create institutional discrimination in the justice system, ill treatment by law enforcement officials and racial profiling; as well as those that lead to overrepresentation of people of African descent in detention centres. It may then be possible to recommend measures to remove these obstacles.

Identifying them will not be an easy task. As the members of the Working Group know well, a lack of specific data regarding people of African descent means that the disparities and human rights violations they face are often underestimated, or even denied.

My Office is strongly committed to efforts that help realise the rights of people of African descent. I look forward to hearing more about the outcome of your discussions during the coming session.

Thank you