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“Tackling legacies of Europe’s colonial past in the wake of Black Lives Matter” - An interdisciplinary symposium

Statement by Birgit Van Hout

Regional Representative for Europe

UN Human Rights (OHCHR)

 24 March 2021


Dear participants,

I thank the Department of Anthropology at MIT and Avocats Sans Frontières for inviting the UN Human Rights Office to address this interdisciplinary symposium.

The UN was erected on the ashes of a genocide fed by racial superiority doctrines. The struggle against racism is thus part of the DNA of the United Nations, even though – and I say this with a lot of humility – our organization’s record on inclusion is not perfect.

Race and color are the first grounds of discrimination mentioned in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was the first international human rights treaty adopted by the General Assembly in 1965. The civil rights movement, the independence movements, the anti-Apartheid movement and the human rights movement all contributed to the global reckoning that peace, security and development would only become possible if every person’s rights, including the right not to be discriminated against, were protected and respected.

And so, measures were taken to tackle racism and other forms of discrimination. In Europe, countries adopted anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation and established equality bodies. But the reality is that, while progress was made, the measures proved largely insufficient to root out racism, for several reasons, of which I would like to cite three.

First of all, the legislation, policies or programmes adopted addressed individual acts of racism, but failed to acknowledge systemic forms of racism. Structural and cultural racism remained taboo.

Second, while addressing some of the manifestations of racism, they failed to consider the root causes of racism and xenophobia, namely the enduring legacy of the past and to acknowledge the tremendous grievances which are the culmination of many generations of pain. Obviously, systemic racism and past injustices are closely linked.

Thirdly, most measures were adopted without the participation of those affected by the scourge of racism. Efforts made often adopted a charitable or paternalistic approach or an approach which characterised persons who were victims of racism not as right-holders but as recipients of services. The result was that measures to counter racism have remained inadequate, social cohesion has remained elusive and the promise of equality and dignity made in the Universal Declaration has remained unfulfilled.

The protests following the killing of George Floyd have put all three elements on the map: systemic inequities, the importance of dealing with the past and the “nothing about us without us” imperative.

In less then a year, we have seen the adoption of the EU’s Anti-Racism Action Plan, the Inaugural European Parliament Commemoration of the European Day for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the first EU anti-racism Summit just last week, all of which specifically refer to systemic racism, past injustices and the need to include victims of racism in the development of public policies.

The link between past and contemporary racism was clearly established at the 2001 World Conference against Racism. In the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, States agreed that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so. Slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were recognized as appalling tragedies in the history of humanity, especially in their negation of the essence of the victims. Article 13 of the Durban Declaration states that slavery and the slave trade are among the major sources of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

When it comes to colonialism, the Durban Conference recognized that Africans, people of African descent, people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of colonialism and continue to be victims of its consequences. For the first time, States expressed regret that the effects and persistence of these structures and practices contributed to lasting social and economic inequalities in many parts of the world.

2021 is an important year as it marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. It also marks the mid-point of the International Decade for People of African Descent of which our High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is the coordinator. The Programme of Activities of the Decade focuses on Recognition, Justice and Development. Recognition includes promoting the culture, history and heritage of people of African descent through education and research and the inclusion of these elements in schools’ curricula.

At the Human Rights Council’s urgent debate last June on racial violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing, High Commissioner Bachelet recognized “our collective failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism.” As the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism has underscored, “many contemporary manifestations of racial discrimination must be understood as a continuation of insufficiently remediated historical forms and structures of racial injustice and inequality.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and the other Durban follow-up mechanisms have all called for reparatory justice. In practical terms, this will require making amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms. Comprehensive and inclusive consultation with those affected should lead to justice, accountability and reconciliation. In a report to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights also referred to the importance of memorialization processes.

All these processes should stimulate civic engagement, critical thinking and discussions about the representation of the past, while also highlighting its contemporary consequences, like persisting racial stereotypes, discrimination, exclusion and violence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is clear that the breadth and depth of measures to address the causes, manifestations and consequences of racism have not been sufficient. According to a recent report of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), only around half of EU Member States currently have national action plans against racism in place, a measure recommended in the Durban Programme of Action as a tool to tackle racism in a holistic manner.

With the creation by the EU of a Sub-group of States to implement the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan at national level, a new momentum has arisen for the development of such plans. A rights-based approach to this endeavor requires that such plans and the process for developing them are premised on the principles of inclusion, participation, transparency and accountability.

The DDPA emphasizes the importance of the participation of victims in the development, implementation and evaluation of the plan and makes specific reference to persons of African descent, persons of Asian descent, Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities, Roma, Sinti, Travellers, indigenous peoples, minorities, refugees and migrants.

Developing a national action plan against racism also requires a whole-of-society approach to ensure broad ownership and buy-in. State institutions should be in the lead, but should involve all sectors of society, the private sector, equality bodies, the media, social partners, etcetera.

A national action plan against racism should be broad in scope and comprehensive. This means it should also deal with the past. Recognizing the past is the first step to repairing the present and key to building the future.

While no country is free from racism, every country is different. A meaningful start of the work on a NAPAR is for each country to develop a diagnostic of the manifestations, causes and consequences of racism and xenophobia through broad consultations.

Our office has issued a practical guide to assist States and right-holders alike in developing an effective national action plan.

We have provided substantive and technical support to countries in the development of NAPARs and stand ready to continue to do so. Thank you.