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OAS Celebrates International Year for People of African Descent

  March 15, 2011

The Organization of American States (OAS) celebrated today the beginning of the International Year for People of African Descent at a special session of the Permanent Council where the Organization reaffirmed its commitment towards the full participation of Afro-descendants under conditions of equality in all aspects of political, economic, social and cultural life in their countries.

“I hope that this year marks the beginning of a wider and stronger commitment towards the Americas’ millions of people of African descent. They have lived too long under conditions of discrimination, exclusion, marginalization, poverty, lack of access to basic services, and in general, a deteriorated situation with regard to the respect, enjoyment and fulfillment of their human rights,” said OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.

Speaking at the Permanent Council, the head of the OAS said that the full integration of Afro-descendants in the economic, social and political life of their countries, as well as the recognition of their own cultural diversity, is still “an outstanding debt,” because people of African descent are “men and women that have significantly – and often anonymously- contributed to the development of history and culture in the Americas.”

Among the Afro-descendants’ contributions, Secretary General Insulza specifically stressed the “libertarian sentiment against all kinds of oppression” expressed for instance in the revolution that lead to the Haitian independence, and “movements defending and demanding civil rights, which contributed to strengthening democracies in the region.” There are more than 170 million people of African descent in the Americas, and 90 percent live under the poverty line and – as expressed by the OAS Secretary General- “without any kind of participation or influence in their countries’ development.”

Secretary General Insulza also mentioned that the OAS is working, through its Department of International Law, towards fully integrating in its programs the subject matter of Afro-descendants. He also highlighted that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Afro-Descendants and against Racial Discrimination, and that the OAS is building consensus for an Inter-American Convention against Racism and All forms of Discrimination and Intolerance.

United Nations declared 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent, a decision echoed by the OAS during its 40th General Assembly in Lima in 2010. The resolution (available here) reaffirms the importance of the free and full participation of Afro-descendants under conditions of equality in all aspects of political, economic, social and cultural life in the countries of the Americas, and also prescribes a series of activities to be carried out in the Organization in the framework of the International Year.

During today’s Permanent Council session, various prestigious international officials spoke about the phenomenon of racial discrimination. The current IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Afro-Descendants and against Racial Discrimination, María Guillén, talked about the role, objectives, contributions and activities of the rapporteurship, created in March 2005. “The IACHR has in the principle of non-discrimination one of the principal pillars in the whole democratic system, and it is well known to everyone that Afro-descendants in the Americas have historically suffered racism and discrimination, as well as invisibility as regards their own existence and identity,” she said.

Professor Cary Héctor, of the University Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, highlighted the fundamental role of his country in world history and the contributions Haiti has made to the continent’s Afro-descendant heritage, emphasizing in particular anti-slavery, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. “Today the Haitian revolution not only has not been forgotten, but it is recognized for the contributions it has made to humanity,” he said.

The former Minister of Culture of Colombia, Paula Moreno, for her part, talked about the need for the International Year for People of African Descent to bring with it “a systematic transition from the rhetorical to the practical,” which, she explained, implies the generation of opportunities and building of agendas and measurable commitments. “This is a year for thinking strategically about the integration of the Afro-descendant ethnicity as a macro-regional project,” she said, and applauded the fact that in the heart of OAS activities is “an agenda where we integrate ourselves not despite our differences but because of them, and where those differences mean the leveling of the point of departure for all citizens of the region.”

The United States Congressman Donald M. Payne, Democrat of New Jersey, offered an analysis of the historical and current challenges faced by Afro-descendant peoples in the Americas, highlighting the adverse economic, social, and health conditions, among others, that they face. “So while we see that there is much more to be done, most countries in Latin America are recognizing that there has been a problem, and that in order to move forward in this millennium, more attention needs to be paid to that problem.”

During a joint presentation by Epsy Campbell and Walter Robinson, Co-Chairs of the National Afro-Costa Rican Commission, talked about the political representation and participation of Afro-descendant women and the opportunity of having a different attitude about the subject. “More and more Afro-descendant women assume that one of the ways of breaking the circle of exclusion is to seek political spaces to make themselves visible and become leading actors in a new democracy that includes them,” Campbell said. The two also presented a series of recommendations to be adopted on the occasion of the celebration of the year dedicated to people of African descent, among them: the generation of statistical data to identify gaps of inequality; the establishment of strategies of social investment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals; to guarantee spaces for political participation for women and Afro-descendant people; and to sensitize and educate future generations to eradicate racism.

The Chair of the Working Group to Prepare a Draft Inter-American Convention against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance, the Costa Rican Danilo González, spoke about the responsibilities, background and commitments of the group he heads and reported that the progress of said negotiation “has been modest,” despite the commitment expressed by the Heads of State and Government, given the differences in criteria that have arisen during the task of addressing the problems through one or more legal instruments.

Finally, the Chair of the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) of Mexico, Ricardo Bucio Mujica, talked about pluri-ethnicity and multiculturalism in the context of his own country and asserted that a democracy “that does not serve to generate equality in the exercise of rights and liberties, or to establish the mechanisms of protection of the State for all its citizens, is a democracy that empties itself of its deepest meaning and content.”

At the end of the presentations, the representatives of the Member States of the OAS alluded to the need to continue the regional dialogue on this matter, and highlighted the role of the IACHR in the protection and defense of the rights of the Afro-descendant population. The representatives of Panama, Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, United States, Canada, Uruguay, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina elaborated on the measures their own governments have implemented to promote the rights of Afro-Descendants and improve their life conditions, and reiterated the firm and continuing support of their governments for this cause.

Representatives of civil society organizations registered with the OAS had the opportunity of speaking during the Council’s special session, and agreed with the call to the States to promptly approve the Inter-American Convention against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance.

A gallery of photos of the event is available here.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-571/11