At the request of the Office of the President of the General Assembly, UN-NGLS conducted an open process to obtain nominations for a civil society speaker in the UN event to officially launch the International Decade for People of African Descent, which took place at UN Headquarters on Human Rights Day, 10 December. Dr. Barryl A. Biekman, a Surinamese-born African Diaspora organizer, served as the civil society speaker in the special event. Her statement received a standing ovation in the Trusteeship Council. This article reflects on the key presentations made during the event and presents the overall objectives of the International Decade for People of African Descent.
The General Assembly, by its resolution 68/237 of 23 December 2013, proclaimed the International Decade for People of African Descent – commencing 1 January 2015 and ending on 31 December 2024 – to raise awareness on issues of racism and racial discrimination faced by people of African descent around the world. The ten-year observance offers an opportunity for a wide range of actors including the UN, governments, civil society and individuals to create synergies in the combat against racism and the enforcement of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The central theme of the decade is “Recognition, Justice and Development,” and its objective is to promote respect, protection and fulfilment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for people of African descent, as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to President of the General Assembly Sam K. Kutesa, human rights violations affect people of African descent in every country and region of the world. He explained that “the Decade will explore the challenges people of Africa descent are facing due to the pervasive racism and racial discrimination engrained in our societies.” During the Decade, States are encouraged to take specific steps to alleviate and remedy disparities, and enable people of African descent to overcome persistent, structural forms of discrimination. Such steps would include revisiting policies and practices that have a negative impact on individuals and communities largely comprised of people of African descent. The Decade offers an opportunity to unite voices and renew political will to eliminate racial discrimination against anyone, anywhere: “Over the next ten years people are encouraged to take part in a global conversation on the realities faced by people of African descent,” the President of the General Assembly stressed.
Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, spoke on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, underscoring that people of African descent suffer from inequality and disadvantage, and are have been marginalized due to limited access to healthcare, education and employment. They face alarmingly high rates of police violence and racial profiling. The Secretary-General noted that the Decade would focus on concrete action and creative initiatives, and his hope is “that a decade from now, the human rights situation of people of African descent worldwide will be vastly improved.”
Ivan Šimonović, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, speaking on behalf of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, pointed to the symbolism of the launch of the Decade on Human Rights Day and stressed that “Human rights belong to us all;” the Decade would serve to “shine a light” on the violations and abuses facing people of African descent, and would recognize the realities they face. He indicated that the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been appointed to act as Coordinator of the Decade. Irina Bokova, Director General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO), who joined the event via video conference, reflected on the launch of the Decade as an essential message of hope, tolerance and human rights: “The Decade is inspired by the powerful idea that to counter discrimination, to build a more just future, we must build on the history all humanity shares.”
Dr. Barryl A. Biekman, speaking on behalf of the African Diaspora Civil Society, reminded the audience that the Decade did not come as a “gift from heaven,” but as the result of a “long struggle” by various actors, such as Pan Africanist organizations, civil society and the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. She further remarked that the three elements of the Decade’s theme – recognition, justice and development – stand for the acknowledgement that slavery was a crime against humanity; the repairing of damage, relating to restoring every aspect of human rights; and the building of a framework to address the concentration of disadvantages, such as poverty and lack of access to good education, healthcare and housing. To leave no one behind, the Decade requires the committed support and involvement of all: “Every forum, every workshop, every review and assessment, every planning session and every on-the-ground implementation project must closely involve representatives from civil society and the grassroots communities.”
Joint message of Independent Experts
A group of independent experts of the largest fact-finding and monitoring mechanism of the United Nations human rights system released a message on the occasion of the official launch of the International Decade for People of African Descent, calling upon UN Member States and all stakeholders to increase their efforts to address the challenge of racism and racial discrimination. Read their statement here.
These independent experts include:
• The UN Working Groups of Experts on people of African descent, on arbitrary detention, and on the use of mercenaries;
• the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, on the situation of human rights defenders, on minority issues, on the right to food, on the right to health, on the right adequate housing, on violence against women, on counter terrorism and human rights, on freedom of expression, on freedom of association, on the sale of children, on the independence of judges and lawyers, and on toxic waste;
• and the Independent Experts on the situation of human rights in Haiti, on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, on environment and human rights, and on the human rights of older persons.
Access the webcast of the launch here
Access the PGA web page on the launch event here
Access the website of the International Decade here