During an upcoming, decade-long focus on the global black experience, a group of U.N. experts says it won’t be convenient for leaders to simply offer lip service in the fight against racism.
The U.N. last week launched the “International Decade for People of African Descent,” pledging to turn up international pressure on governments and institutions that perpetuate discrimination against the estimated 200 million people globally that identify themselves as being of African descent.
The launch comes as racial inequalities for blacks living outside of the African continent have garnered international attention. The U.S. response to recent police killings of unarmed black men – namely the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri—are seen by the group as “two outstanding cases” that could merit special examination of the underlying issues.
But “there are other issues that are broader than the two cases that we are talking about,” said Verene Shepard, a member of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. The group will issue reports that call out both inequities and good practices by governments to address those inequities.
Growing out of an initiative adopted at global anti-racism conference held in South Africa in 2009, the Decade is a broadly outlined program of activities intended to promote the full societal inclusion for blacks, and combat modern forms of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. It requires participation from all U.N. member states and is due an annual progress report on the Decade’s activities from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The U.N. also will use the Decade to promote knowledge of and respect for the heritage, culture and global contributions of people of African descent. Several nations have raised money for a permanent memorial to the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, to be installed at the New York headquarters during the Decade.
Even with its broader focus, nations participating in a launch event last week didn’t ignore its timeliness. American U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power spoke to the impact that grand jury decisions not to charge police in the killings of Garner and Brown has on the perception of racial parity in the U.S.
“Those of us who call New York home have seen first-hand the way the grand jury decisions have been felt across communities,” Power said. “And I think what all of us have seen in this period is a desire to talk about the ongoing discrimination that many people in the United States feel and experience, and to bring that discussion out into the open.”
The U.N.’s prior anti-racism forums have included non-governmental organizations, such as the NAACP, which are also engaged with the activities of the Decade.
“We think that it is a tremendous opportunity to evolve a debate that we see in the United States is so greatly needed,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau.
“We know of the disparities that exist — African Americans find ourselves at the low end of met needs, and at the high end of conditions considered dangerous and perilous,” Shelton added.
Experts could return to U.S.
One of the charges of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent is to visit countries where blacks report high levels of race-based discrimination and everyday intolerance. The last time experts visited the U.S., in 2010, the group noted its frank discussions with government officials and members of civil society.
The group concluded that the challenges facing American blacks “related mainly to disproportionately high levels of unemployment [and] generally lower income levels than the rest of the population.” It also listed a lack of access to quality higher education and healthcare, voter disenfranchisement, the unequal administration of justice and disproportionate incarceration rates.
Earlier this month, the group of experts visited Europe, where blacks in Sweden said profiling by police contributed to widespread feelings of “marginalization, invisibility, economic vulnerability and insecurity,” according to statement released by the group.
Shepard said it was not outside of the group’s mandate to return to countries it has already visited, including the U.S., “if we consider that there are still some issues that are unresolved.”
There are future plans to make country visits to Canada, as well as an African country and a Caribbean nation.