Statement by Mirjana Najchevska Member of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent to the 24th session of the Human Rights Council

24 September 2013

Mr. President
Distinguished representatives
Ladies and Gentlemen

A month ago we marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s landmark speech "I have a dream." I would like to start by paying tribute to his invaluable heritage of racial harmony and equality.

Today, on behalf of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent I will present to you three reports: first the report of the 12th Session of the Working Group, followed by country visit reports to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to Panama.

I will begin with the 12th session of the Working Group, held from 22-26 April 2013 in Geneva. During this session, we discussed the theme of “Recognition of people of African descent” through:

  • Education,
  • Cultural rights and
  • Data collection

At this meeting, I would like to acknowledge the importance of Recognition and its relevance as one of the themes for the International Decade for People of African Descent.

Recognition of people of African descent as a distinct group is essential to increasing their visibility and thus to the full realization of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It entails recognizing that people of African descent are, and have been, particularly vulnerable to racism throughout history and across the world.

It also means recognizing their contribution to world development, their common history, culture, and heritage.

People of African descent must be recognized in national constitutions, legislation, in public life, the media, through education and awareness-raising measures.

Mr. President,

Recognition should start with education. Millions of girls, boys, women and men of African descent suffer disproportionately from unequal access to quality education.

The right to education is critical for people of African descent, not only as a means of extricating themselves from historical exclusion and discrimination, but also for the enjoyment and respect of their cultures, traditions and knowledge.

Children of African descent often suffer silently when confronted by racist bullies at schools. Students should learn in an environment free from racist and hostile attitudes of teachers and peers. They should be protected from these acts, and perpetrators should be punished.

Where we live, in many cases, will determine the school we attend. Poor neighbourhoods often offer poor education. The impact of residential patterns on school enrolment should be carefully assessed and addressed.

States should go beyond building schools and put more emphasis on the ultimate goal of education: guaranteeing equal opportunities, equal achievement outcomes and social mobility.

States should revise curricula and teaching materials and develop ones which respect and recognize the history of people of African descent, including the transatlantic slave trade.

States should also cooperate with the United Nations agencies and bodies to promote and protect the culture, identity, tangible and intangible heritage of the continent of Africa and people of African descent.

Data collection is a key enabling factor to overcome the historical “social invisibility” faced by people of African descent. Data is crucial so as to confirm the existence of a group in a given country and to assess their overall situation.

Data can also assist in formulating and monitoring racial-equality policies, such as national action plans and affirmative action policies.

Similarly, disaggregated data is extremely useful in investigating cases of racial discrimination. At the same time, data collection is also a demonstration of political will to monitor discrimination.

I would like to emphasize that there is no contradiction on the right to privacy and the need to collect data for the promotion of racial equality.

States should remove bans in constitutions and laws, which do not allow data collection on ethnic, racial or national origins. They should also guarantee data protection and the right to privacy in order to prevent the misuse of data.

Mr. President,

Now, I would like to briefly touch upon other important issues discussed during the 12th session of the Working Group, including the adoption of the Methods of Work of the Working Group, based on the Code of Conduct of Special Procedures and the mandate of the Working Group given by the Human Rights Council.

I am pleased to inform you that the Methods of Work are available on OHCHR’s webpage.

We also discussed the International Decade for People of African Descent and urged the General Assembly to adopt it this year.

Today, allow me to ask where do we stand in the protection and promotion of rights of people of African descent?

As the High Commissioner rightly pointed out, people of African descent throughout the world make up some of the poorest and most marginalised groups, whether descendants of those Africans that were displaced to the Americas during the infamous transatlantic slave trade many generations back, or more recent migrants who have journeyed to the Americas, Europe, Asia and within Africa itself.

Negative stereotypical images of people of African descent are still commonplace within the media throughout the world.

In the context of the current economic crises, migrants, including those of African descent, are often scapegoated for the problems such as housing and employment shortages. And, with this, we are seeing a rise in xenophobic attitudes often manifested in violence.

In some regions, people of African descent also face new and emerging challenges, such as displacement due to threats of armed conflict or large scale industrial development projects.

Let us not forget the very serious problem that constitutes racial profiling, which is inextricably linked to high rates of police violence, arrests, imprisonment and discrimination in the justice system.

For some, mainly young men of African descent, racial profiling can have lethal consequences.

The Decade for people of African descent will certainly contribute to overcoming these problems. A Decade would surely help in joining efforts by States, civil society and the international community in this long path towards true equality.

I would like to highlight that the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has recommended the drafting of a United Nations Declaration on the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of People of African Descent, as one of the main objectives of the Decade. The Working Group supports this recommendation.

Mr. President,

I now have the honour of presenting to you country visit reports of the Working Group to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Panama.

I would like to thank the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Panama for their invitations, assistance during the visits and for their openness during the discussions. I would also like to thank all stakeholders who provided a range of viewpoints and experiences.

Our findings, conclusions and recommendations represent a combination of official and civil society views and, as such, will reflect convergences and divergences. In the limited time available, let me share with you the main findings.

The visit to the United Kingdom took place from 1-5 October 2012. The United Kingdom has an impressive legislative framework and has invested considerable resources in anti-discrimination initiatives.

But, despite all these achievements, people of African descent we consulted believe that the Government has not fully implemented the existing policies and legislation and has failed in responding adequately to their problems.

The United Kingdom and people of African descent have a unique relationship, including the colonial past, long-standing historical, economic and political relations with several African and Caribbean countries, and new waves of immigration.

The UK Government and society should acknowledge the legacy of slavery, the influence of the British colonial past and the role played by people of African descent in the construction and development of the country.

National policies and legislation should reflect the particular history and persistent disparities affecting people of African descent.

Action should include a wider range of special measures in areas where they do not exist to overcome structural discrimination, broader awareness-raising measures and monitoring of compliance mechanisms.

The national curriculum should be reviewed in order to ensure that education is culturally relevant and diverse and includes the history of Africa.

Community members living in areas affected by the riots in 2011 expressed the opinion that the problems faced by young people of African descent are rooted in racism, discrimination and lack of opportunities they face.

To reverse this situation, affirmative action policies are necessary to ensure equal access to quality education and equal opportunities.

Concerns were also raised regarding policing, racial profiling, bias, and allegations of excessive use of force, particularly of young men of African descent.

Young people of African descent are entering the criminal justice institutions extremely early, leading to early and rapid criminalization.

Finally, austerity measures adopted in response to the current economic crisis could threaten achievements made by the United Kingdom in the promotion of equality and multiculturalism. Responses to the crisis must not lead to a situation which would give rise to more discrimination and exacerbate the already precarious conditions of vulnerable groups.

Mr. President

I now move to the last segment of my presentation and allow me to introduce to you the Report of the Working Group on its country visit to Panama, which took place from 14 to 18 January 2013.

Like many other Latin American countries, Panama faces challenges connected with its pluralist nature, in itself a source of the country’s richness.

We noted that some sectors of the Panamanian society deny the existence of racism and racial discrimination.

The Working Group believes that unfortunately no country is free from racism. And in order to counter it, we should move away from its denial and accept its existence. Silence about racism prevents formulation of public policies and the social criticism required to overcome it.

Panama has adopted various laws and established institutions. But, the clear message that people of African descent shared with us is that they continue to be marginalized and discriminated against.

Women of African descent denounced the persistence in society of stereotypes of women of African descent as sex objects. On a daily basis, these ethnic prejudices are reinforced by the media.

People of African descent have difficulty in obtaining access to justice, because of institutional discrimination in the justice system.

Representation of people of African descent among persons deprived of their liberty is greatly disproportionate. We were concerned by the inhumane prison conditions and overcrowded detention facilities.

Racism and racial discrimination have also been reinforced by the limited sharing with people of African descent and indigenous peoples of the current economic growth and progress of the country. This situation is evidenced by the widespread poverty and inadequate standard of living of these groups.

We cannot help but ask ourselves, why does this wealth not reach people of African descent?

We appeal to the Government to develop policies to guarantee that economic growth is enjoyed equally and fairly by all Panamanians, and contribute to improving the quality of life of the society as a whole.

We are pleased to learn that positive changes are taking place. The Panamanian parliament will debate soon a draft law criminalizing racism and discrimination. We welcome this development and we look forward its adoption and implementation. We trust that the United Kingdom and Panama will find the recommendation of the Working Group useful in their work and efforts towards equal and harmonious societies.

Mr. President

The situation described above shows that there is still a long way to go before the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by people of African descent in different parts of the world.

It is for these reasons that the proposal for the International Decade for People of African Descent is a timely and important one.

We must maintain the momentum that has been gathering speed since the World Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001, the 10th anniversary of the DDPA and the International Year for People of African Descent in 2011.

The Decade will be an opportunity to ensure the effective implementation of the crucial provisions laid out in the ICERD and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, focusing at the national level.

The proposed theme of Justice, Recognition and Development underpins the issues I have just described and could guide the objectives and activities for the Decade.
Today, I ask for your support in this connection.

Finally, I am grateful to the Governments of Brazil, the Netherlands and Sweden for having accepted our request for a visit. The Working Group will visit Brazil from 4 to 13 December this year. We are in contact with the Governments of Sweden and the Netherlands to arrange outstanding technical details for visits to these countries in 2014. Finally, it is our hope that a visit to Canada will materialize in 2015. I reiterate the call for governments to respond to country visit requests in an expeditious manner.

Thank you for your attention.