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Statements Special Procedures

Capacity Building Visit of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent in partnership with UNESCO

End of visit statement

17 December 2021



The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent conducted a working visit to Paris, France, hosted by UNESCO, from 13-16 December 2021. During these 4 days the Working Group participated in over thirty meetings with a wide range of key interlocutors, held several additional informal consultations, and reviewed relevant materials.

The Mandate of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent

The mandate of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 36/23, includes a comprehensive focus on the situation of people of African descent globally. The mandate, in pertinent part, requires the Working Group to "elaborate short-, medium- and long-term proposals for the elimination of racial discrimination against people of African descent, through inter alia: Liaising with financial and developmental institutional and operational programmes and specialised agencies of the United Nations, with a view to contribute to development programmes intended for people of African descent by allocating additional investments … and promoting equal opportunities in employment, as well as other affirmative or positive measures and strategies within the human rights framework." To this end, the Working Group’s capacity building visits focus on building capacity, advocacy, and implementation of recommendations, as distinct from county visits which are focused on fact finding.

Such working visits seek to support and assist concerned stakeholders to develop their capacity to protect the human rights of people of African descent using the Working Group’s Operational Guidelines on inclusion of people of African descent in the 2030 Agenda. These principles were adopted in December 2020. They were designed to assist Member States, financial and development institutions, and other relevant stakeholders to implement the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs with a specific focus on people of African descent. They are also intended to assist the United Nations system, and locally, United Nations Country Teams, and development partners to implement the International Decade for People of African Descent and its programme of activities.

Partnership with UNESCO

During this technical visit, the Working Group has relied heavily upon the knowledge experience and the thoughtful partnership of UNESCO, and specifically the team of the “Slave Route Project”, which hosted the Working Group and which works to provide intellectual, political, cultural and educational substance to the commitment that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” -- and particularly seeks to address the complex issue of racism. The important work of this project has direct relevance to development and financial decision-making today, including how the legacy of mind-sets relating to colonialism and enslavement influence the development context and perpetuate systemic exclusion and lack of opportunities for people of African descent. This key, growing resource, and the knowledge of relevant personnel, should be broadly leveraged to enrich the understanding and approaches of financial and development institutions working to impact people of African descent.  The UNESCO Slave Route Project has been a key resource for the Working Group to consider policy in the context of the practical, the historical in the context of today, and theory in the context of the praxis.

A working visit

During the visit, the Working Group held consultations with people of African descent to listen to them, reflect together, make proposals and contribute to the development and integration of people of African descent living in France. As part of this technical visit, the Working Group met with civil society including people of African descent, the National Human Rights Commission (CNCDH) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Working Group thanks UNESCO for hosting this visit. In particular, it thanks colleagues working with the Slave Route Project: Resistance, Liberty and Heritage for their support in facilitating the visit. It also thanks the many people of African descent and others, representing civil society organizations, human rights defenders, doctors, artists, actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, curators, lawyers, media executives, academics, and youth whom we met during the visit. Their insights and lived experience enriched the Working Group’s understanding of the situation.

The Working Group takes cognizance of the following existing tools, resources, developments, and analyses relating to the French context, as well as the work of civil society and efforts of individuals of African descent.  These include the work of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (leCommission Nationale Consultative de Droits de l’Homme (CNCDH)); the Defender of Rights, the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery; the inter-ministerial delegation working on racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia (DILRAH); notable surveys and studies on racism and xenophobia; the Taubira Law of 2001 (Loi n° 2001-434 du 21 mai 2001 tendant à la reconnaissance de la traite et de l'esclavage en tant que crime contre l'humanité) recognizing the transatlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades, and enslavement as crimes against humanity); the work of the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA) in monitoring the representation of all persons in the media; the key role of civil society in articulating the systemic experiences of racism by people of African descent and supporting the people socially, politically and economically; the resilience of people of African descent of all ages, who are contributing to various facets of French society including music, art, science, academia, the media, education, sport, and entrepreneurship; and the reality that many people in France are inspired by the current global discourse against racism, and desire to set their society free from the scourge of racial inequality that affects both perpetrators and victims.

In this visit, the Working Group has observed several areas, which require further examination and investigation.  These include the ways in which the concept of universalism could be re-interpreted to equally value and integrate the cultural differences and the experiences of people of African descent in France; how the advancement of extremist ideas and racialized hate speech in political discourse (including in upcoming elections)which greatly impact people of African descent and the reputation of France as a country of liberty, fraternity and equality – are managed ;1 the impact of the pandemic on the rights of people of African descent, including racial disparities associated therewith; the role of the State in protecting the liberty and life of individuals, including the issues raised in the case of Adama Traouré; the growing global discourse on reparations for slavery and colonial crimes; and the persistence of racial stereotypes.2

Relevant Context

The Working Group’s visit focused heavily on the fields of cultural and knowledge production, given the unique opportunity to leverage the expertise of UNESCO in this regard and the particular focus on these fields as important areas of cross-cutting relevance. France recognizes the importance of the cultural sector, which receives significant public, private and governmental support.

Nevertheless, many people of African descent in France report that efforts to contribute to this cultural and knowledge production, their innovations, their successes, and/or failures remain invisible to relevant public entities or to the investment structure.  In the fields of cultural and knowledge production, both creatives and executives of African descent reported the need for a “blessing” from outside to gain support in France. Their potential, i.e., their stature individually and the legitimacy of their work, was unrecognized by public investment vehicles or the relevant leadership in their fields unless and until they received support or recognition outside France, particularly from the United States or the United Kingdom, or until private investors endorsed them.

Thus, despite a narrative of meritocracy, individuals at varied stages of success and career development (including those with significant success) reported that the benediction of traditional institutional gatekeepers, rather than excellence, was the necessary trigger for access and recognition, i.e., that the relevance of their work continued to be filtered by the “white gaze” complicating efforts to introduce new perspectives and approaches.  While outside support and recognition, private investment, and social media all provided some alternatives, in many fields, people reported being far behind their peers professionally, a disparity that appeared systemic and was not explained by the efforts or preferences of those reporting it. In multiple fields, individuals reported these struggles extended back to their school days, where their grades on the same papers were dramatically improved when graded by professors who did not know them or that they were Black. Yet, a racialized form of gatekeeping is contrary to human rights, imposes severe development costs to people of African descent individually and as a whole, and deprives France of a proven economic driver in multiple fields. Those who “hold the keys” in France might benefit greatly from critical inquiry of how the very efforts designed for quality control in the fields of cultural and knowledge production may reify persistent negative racial stereotypes rather than assure quality outcomes.

In addition, a “do it yourself” mentality, without reliance on State recognition, was echoed throughout the Working Group’s visit. As is indicated above, the relevance of public institutional support is not merely financial, it also is a driver of individual and professional legitimacy.  The path to become a curator in a public museum, or even to open a bank account to run for political office, requires the authorization and endorsement of key institutional actors at multiple stages.  In addition, the Working Group heard that the perception of racial color-blindness may obstruct recognition of formal or informal barriers experienced by people of African descent, particularly those grounded in subjective decision-making.3  Thus, robust engagement with the historical underpinnings of the social construct of race, as is seen in the work of the UNESCO Slave Routes Project, is a necessary but lacking part of this conversation in order to situate the current context for people of African descent within key legacies that impact it.

Economic Benefits are Apparent

This is also a driver of economic development, consistent with the SDGs. As an initial matter, the Working Group heard of depression, anxiety, addiction, and related problems from health professionals. These have clear and escalating costs to the health care system of France. Notably, these ill-health concerns are also a loss in terms of economic benefit to France.  Thus far, the States that are often opening the doors, or “giving the keys,” for people of African descent in France have had considerable success leveraging the cultural content and leadership of people of African descent as economic drivers. In the United States, for example, the economic impact of arts and cultural production exceeds $800 billion, more than double the economic impact of the construction and transportation/warehousing industries combined. 4People of African descent are acknowledged to be a core, significant driver of economic wealth and development in this area. Private and public investment has supported the work on African Americans and is recognized as a crucial element that has allowed this sector to grow and flourish.

Although this has been subject to significant contraction during the COVID-19 pandemic, 5there has also been a dramatic rise in innovative digital production, distribution, and consumption patterns in this same period, suggesting transformation rather than elimination of cultural production as an economic driver. Id. UNESCO has heralded the need to invest in creativity, protect the status of artists and ensure a fair digital transition. Id. Thus, a significant and immediate opportunity exists to drive economic recovery and “build back better” in recognizing the untapped potential in the cultural and knowledge production of people of African descent, and their existing and potential leadership in this area, as an important area of focus.

France, should not lose an economic opportunity to benefit from the demonstrated potential of people of African descent, and from mitigating the drivers of illness and addiction related to chronic racial stress. France could embrace and adopt solidarity with communities of African descent in order to create synergies and promote an economic rebirth post-COVID. In addressing the ways that people of African descent particularly experience exclusion, and added barriers, France’s commitment to “leave no one behind” and “address the furthest behind first” may be comprehensively realized in addition to the realization of significant economic benefits within the framework of the 2030 Agenda.

The 2030 Agenda

France has made a national commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (the 2030 Agenda).  However, its efforts to “leave no one behind” may be compromised if it does not address the racialized experiences of people of African descent. As the Working Group has reported on legacy effects, negative racial stereotypes both reflect and perpetuate cultural stereotypes that justify denialism, diminished expectations and divestment from communities of African descent. Racial discrimination continues to be systemic and rooted in an economic model that denies meaningful and effective development to people of African descent globally and frequently justifies or neutralizes the historical and ongoing exploitation of their labour, land and natural resources.6

In its Operational Guidelines, which it tested in the field throughout 2018-2019, the Working Group found that the lack of particularized consideration of people of African descent in articulating their commitments to the 2030 Agenda often compromised the reach and effectiveness of Government and other stakeholders efforts for these communities, which continue to be impacted by legacies of colonialism and the trade and trafficking in enslaved Africans, including the mindsets that enabled widespread public acceptance of racial atrocity in the past. 

This also has an impact on key development indicators, including education (SDG 4); health (SDG 3); employment, economic growth, and entrepreneurship (SDG 8); inclusiveness (SDG 16), and participation and representation (SDG 16.7); resilient and sustainable communities (SDG 9); reducing inequality (SDG 10); and non-discrimination (SDG 16.12). The CNCDH confirms this in its existing analysis, including the Report on the Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Xenophobia focused on anti-black racism (2019),7 which shows that significant prejudice against people of African descent in France is trivialised, underestimated or ignored.8 Even the use of the term “woke,” initially coined by people of African descent as a sign of a critical perspective and awareness, has been reimagined pejoratively.9  The Working Group was told that the prevalence of bias stemming from the colonial period persists in a society that openly condemns racism and requires the whole of society to become aware of the phenomenon and a decolonisation of minds. The CNCDH and the Trajectories and Origins survey findings comport with the lived experience of people of African descent whom the Working Group met during this technical visit.

Preliminary observations arising from the visit: 

The Working Group is keen to initiate and develop a constructive dialogue on these difficult issues, and to closely cooperate with the French government and all stakeholders, such as UN agencies, state institutions, the commission on human rights, academics, civil society and people of African descent to foster an open and mutually respectful dialogue. Several preliminary observations can be made:

  • Public Engagement with Key Government and Civil Society Stakeholders. The Working Group would welcome the opportunity to host a series of public conversations with key Government and civil society stakeholders to further develop and discuss key concerns regarding the rights of people of African descent and contribute to developing a collective vision with respect to liberty, equality, and fraternity. In addition, the realization of agenda 2030 should be characterized by an approach that ensures integration, visibility, and meaningful participation by people of African descent.
  • Country Visit by the UN Working Group. The Working Group’s interest in a country visit to France is a top priority. We would welcome the opportunity to further develop these principles in the context of a fact-finding visit in 2022 and would kindly ask France to proffer dates in line with its standing invitation to the Special Procedures.
  • Greater Representation. It seems that there is a need for greater representation at all levels including in politics and the media. The lack of representation of people African descent creates a gap in knowledge, expertise, and universality in the progress toward the principles set forth in the 2030 Agenda. The effectiveness and relevance of initiatives designed to promote racial equality and inclusion relies on representation of people of African descent, and lived experience, in their design and implementation.
  • Universalism and Diversity. Fraternité (brotherhood)in France is a core aspect of universalism, yet recognition of the varied experiences of people of African descent, and the spaces to develop these, may be pejoratively labelled as communitarian.  Nevertheless, for many people of African descent involved in cultural production, knowledge production, or public service, success in France came only after recognition from the US or the UK.  Notably, these states are historically offering greater enabling environments, including in acknowledgement and financial support for the ways a multicultural focus can enrich discourse and content in centering nuanced aspects of experience, diversity and complexity. Thus, developing the particularity of experience of the French people of African descent may positively contribute to the universalism of French identity, rather than to a fruitless separation. For this reason, the right to freedom of association includes the right to organise on the basis of common experiences and objectives. Similarly, universalist approaches may regard and respect differences in life experiences, including for people of African descent. In addition to local civil society initiatives, the International Decade for People of African Descent offers an opportunity and a programme of activities that may assist in this regard.
  • Legacies of Colonialism and the trade and trafficking in enslaved Africans. France has a very progressive law on which to build and, to implement it, must go further toward fully realizing and addressing legacies of the past, including their current manifestations and the effect on the mindsets and perception of people of African descent (including those with decision-making authority). As stated above, those who “hold the keys” in France might benefit greatly from critical inquiry of how gatekeepers (i.e., quality control personnel) in the fields of cultural and knowledge production may reify persistent negative racial stereotypes rather than ensure quality in some cases. Improved implementation should include assessment and elimination of any discriminatory practices in education; mainstreaming of African history (based on the General History of Africa) in the educational curriculum to adequately and authentically address the violence of colonialism, enslavement and the trade and trafficking of Africans, and to celebrate the achievements and contributions of the continent; removing barriers to higher education, including promotion of blind grading processes; and recognizing the effect of misrepresentation of African history in education and media on the dignity of people of African descent. Targeted capacity-building measures, scholarships, and investment, including affirmative action measures, may assist in this regard.  In addition, UNESCO has developed several relevant operational actions in order to integrate human rights education into school curricula and to break the silence on great historical traumas such as genocides, colonization, and the transatlantic trade and enslavement, to which Africa and its Diasporas were victims. Researchers in France are also working to revise and renegotiate the language of history to better reflect the realities of this period and its legacies, an important resource.
  • Build Back Better. In the “Build Back Better” COVID-19 recovery, it is important to consider the particular needs, risks, and realities that people of African descent have weathered during the pandemic.  This may include the need for a particular focus on housing conditions, increased homelessness, increased rates of school dropout and educational inequality in remote learning environments.
  • Financial Inclusion of People of African Descent. Many people of African descent reported difficulty to access capital, public funding, and recognition for their work.  The heightened barriers to access capital and financial services by people of African descent create a conflict with the commitments set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals.  Investment in the cultural and knowledge production resident among people of African descent in France creates the opportunity to revise the “do it yourself” narrative that under-recognizes the opportunity to invest in existing talent, dismantles barriers to access financial services, promotes financial inclusion in accelerating ways, and supports key drivers for economic development for France.
  • Racially Disaggregated Data. The Working Group heard that the lack of racially disaggregated data significantly limits the ability of the State to recognize the common realities faced by communities of African descent, to develop a systemic understanding of how racial disparities may indicate the racialized use of discretion in ways that sustain and perpetuate racial discrimination, inequality and inequity, to repair or redress this ongoing harm. The Working Group also learnt that reliable data collected by independent and non-state entities indicates these concerns remain valid and necessary for the State.

1 See 6 Aug. 2018 Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, (“[P]opulist ideologies and strategies pose a sobering threat to racial equality by fuelling discrimination, intolerance and the creation of institutions and structures that will have enduring legacies of racial exclusion”); see also 2 Aug. 2019 Report of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent,“Political discourse and the exercise of State power may both habituate and reinforce long-standing racial prejudice. In politics, the deployment of racial stereotypes for political gain is becoming increasingly common and is particularly

toxic….Political leaders have used these phenomena to seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, Afrophobia and nativism, which has had a devastating impact on people of African descent.”).

2 See 2 Aug. 2019 Report of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, (“The ongoing racial disparities that exist with respect to people of African descent are often grounded in pervasive racial stereotypes that facilitate social acceptance (and sometimes even the expectation) of racial disparity”)

3 For example, recent studies have acknowledged that individual, private employment decision-making relating to employment is sometimes intentionally accommodating of demands for racial discrimination and bias.

4 See U.S. Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (1998-2017) (March 2020).

5 See UNESCO, Cultural and creative industries in the face of COVID-19: an economic impact outlook (17 June 2021),

6 See 2 Aug. 2019 Report of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, at ¶53, 14/22,


8 These observations are corroborated by various other studies; associations; court decisions; and decisions by the Human Rights Defender. See Trajectories and Origins: Survey on the Diversity of the French Population (Cris Beauchemin, Christelle Hamel, Patrick Simon, Trajectoires et origines: Enquête sur la diversité des populations en France (2015))

9 See id.