The United Nations Permanent Forum of People of African Descent (PFPAD) held its inaugural meeting at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 5-8 December 2022.
This international network of rights experts, policy-makers and campaigners came together to help guide and accelerate the actions of the United Nations in addressing systemic racism, racial discrimination, marginalisation, xenophobia, other related intolerances and exclusions that negatively impact the lives, opportunities and aspirations of African-descended people as a result of histories, continuities and legacies of racialised injustice.
The diverse gathering of participants included government spokespeople for the UN Member States, human rights scholars, anti-racism campaigners, political scientists, lawyers, environmentalists, economists, health and social services professionals, faith leaders, heritage experts, cultural commentators, educators, artists, journalists, elders, activists and young people from a range of community-facing civil society organisations.
Background and Context
Following the General Assembly’s unanimous decision to adopt UN Resolution A/RES/75/314 (2 August 2021) and establish a Permanent Forum of People of African Descent, this 10-member “consultative mechanism” became an integral part of the UN structure, with a remit to:
- hear the voices of people of African descent
- identify and analyse best practices, challenges, opportunities and initiatives for improving the safety, quality of life and livelihoods of people of African descent
- serve as an advisory body to the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the wider United Nations, providing expert advice and recommendations for countering all forms of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances confronted by people of African descent which impede full realisation and enjoyment of inalienable human rights and fundamental freedoms
- draft a collective declaration on the promotion and full respect of the human rights of people of African descent.
The Forum’s inception and schedule of priorities was informed by evidence-gathering and programmes of action undertaken in the two decades since the UN General Assembly’s landmark Durban Declaration of 2001. The anti-racism commitments, actions and recommendations arising from the discussions in South Africa were further reinforced by UN Resolution 68/237 of 2013 – which designated the years 2015-2024 The International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD).
Recognition of African heritage – and the contributions of African-descended peoples to societies around the world – past and present – has been an integral aspect of the IDPAD, aligned with formalised commitments to counter and eradicate the many significant and particular challenges experienced by Africans and diasporans on account of racism, structural discrimination, marginalisation and also the legacies of trans-oceanic enslavement histories, human trafficking and oppression over the longue durée of Western imperialist expansion.
Particular global events and mass movements for change have also further highlighted the importance of the United Nations for advancing more focused and concerted programmes of action to combat racism, stereotyping, intersected forms of discrimination, inequalities and injustice – from expanding the disaggregation of data to better understand the racialised disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the differentiated impacts of climate change, through to foci on the #MeToo justice survivors’ campaigns, the legacies of George Floyd’s murder, and the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Themes and Priorities
Over the four days (5-8 December 2022) selected members of the Forum’s group of experts, working in collaboration with staff from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), chaired and facilitated eight consultation sessions, which addressed the following themes:
- The fight against systemic racism and other intersected discriminations
- Sustainable development and the case for climate justice
- A rights-based approach to reparatory justice
- Connecting the past and the future
- Equality for all – considered in recognition of the intersected inequities and particular experiences of women, children and young people, LGBTQiA+, Indigenous communities, disabled people, linguistic minorities, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants of African descent
- Drafting a legally binding UN Declaration on the Rights of People of African Descent – similar in its framing of specificities to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007.
- The future work of the Forum and improvements to the policy-making mechanisms for people of African descent – guided and informed by Member States, the UN’s bodies and entities, NGOs, civil society organisations, activists’ collectives and other stakeholders working to advance racial justice, human rights and equalities.
More than 300 delegates were invited to address the Forum directly – in person, via recorded presentations and also via the UN’s live Webcast. By the closing day, more than 600 contributors out of a total of c.900 registrants overall had submitted written statements, recommendations, evidentiary datasets, case study research and other feedback to the PFPAD (c/o: email@example.com / Web: https://www.ohchr.org/en/permanent-forum-people-african-descent)
Forum Members and Officials
Former Vice-President and Finance Minister of Costa Rica, Dr Epsy Campbell Barr was appointed Chair of the Permanent Forum. She committed to serve for a two-year term, through to 2024, working closely with her Vice-Chair, human rights lawyer Alice Angèle Nkom (from Cameroon), and the Forum’s Special Rapporteur, Dr Michael McEachrane – an academic, human rights expert and decolonial justice activist based in Sweden.
The other current members of the Forum include an international network of human rights scholars, community advocates and anti-racism campaigners from the Bahamas, China, Colombia, Egypt, Kenya, Saint Lucia and the USA.
All expressed and re-affirmed their commitments to awareness-raising and advancing instructive standards against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, the specificities of “Afri-phobia” and “anti-Blackness,” human rights violations, related intolerances and indignities impacting the lives and futures of people of African descent.
Photographs and career profiles for all the members are available online at https://www.ohchr.org/en/permanent-forum-people-african-descent/members.
Discussions and Observations
The urgency of fighting against racism in all its forms was articulated at many scales – from the macro-scale shared experiences of people with African ancestry world-wide, through to the micro-scale heritage specificities of racialised minorities, such as the Garifuna of Honduras and Belize, and also African-descended Maroon communities dispersed throughout the islands and nations of the Caribbean region.
A number of UN Member States’ representatives and Forum officials worked collectively to spotlight the agendas of particular geopolitical alliances, global regions and their histories – including very powerful statements from Matthew Wilson (Ambassador and UN Representative of Barbados), Gaynel Curry (Bahamas), and Dr June Soomer (Saint Lucia) in support of the CARICOM Commission’s 10-point plan for reparatory justice. Dr Soomer also issued a poignant call for a global conference in 2024/25 focused on histories of state-sponsored trafficking in African lives as a crime against humanity, concluding: “The investment was blood and lives; therefore the action must be reparation.”
An over-arching mantra for the debates on sustainable development was expressed by internationally renowned historian Professor Verene Shepherd, spokesperson for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), who advocated for reparations as the route to peace and reconciliation, calling for all to “transition from rhetoric into reality!”
Considerations regarding the health and well-being outcomes of young children, mothers, non-binary people, LGBTQiA+ and disabled people of African descent featured prominently in the Forum discussions on rights, equalities and intersectionalities – with personal testimonies about challenging violations and exclusions experienced by trans women, disability rights activists, refugees and asylum-seekers.
The recovery programmes of Small Island Developing States in response to the combined impacts of climate change, disasters such as Hurricane Dorian (2019) and the COVID-19 pandemic were cited as priorities by Forum members. So, too, were issues related to limited access and a lack of inclusion with regard to ICT, high-speed internet connectivity and digital/tech innovations. However, the most vociferous prioritisations mentioned by delegates from continental African nations (most notably Sudan) focused on issues of migration and the tragically high numbers of African deaths at sea – especially off the North African coast and across the Mediterranean.
More than any other individual nation, the plight of Haiti was debated as a major concern. This was not solely in relation to the recent rights abuses perpetrated by UN peacekeepers, but also the longer-term, historic consequences of France’s enslavement atrocities, extractive exploitations of the nation’s resources, and the debilitating impacts of its post-emancipation debt burden.
The closing comments of the final thematic debate were delivered by Mohamud Hersi from the Norwegian Centre against Racism (Antirasistisk Senter), advocating for permanent representation of a person (or persons) below the age of 20 on the PFPAD – especially in recognition of the youthfully skewed population demographics across continental Africa, and the Global South more broadly.
UK Government Representation at the PFPAD
It was disheartening, but not surprising, that the United Kingdom did not send a spokesperson of African descent as its government representative responsible for addressing the Forum and contributing to broader discussions concerning British imperial history, enslavement, colonialism and the legacies of racism. Instead, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) staff member at the UN simply cited the publication of the Inclusive Britain (March 2022) report as evidence of the government’s commitment to improve the life experiences and outcomes of minoritized Britons, responding to the earlier work of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (2021), chaired by Dr Tony Sewell CBE. Given the avalanche of criticism reported in the press in opposition to Sewell’s questionable and discredited research findings – which specifically under-reported disparities and made contentious statements about their causalities pertaining to education, employment, health, well-being, and the criminal justice system, etc. – this intervention was highly problematic. Additionally, a number of counter-responses to the Sewell Report (issued by, among others, teachers’ unions, academics, Black-led rights organisations, and health service policy experts) provided detailed criticisms of how the report downplayed the enduring impacts of systemic, structural racism to further compound the inappropriate referencing of such spurious reporting on race and racism in Britain as something to mention within this international context. And lastly, no subsequent interventions suggestive of any reparatory justice intentions and commitments were forthcoming from the government. So, it is my hope that much more appropriate, informed and relevant future contributions by UK FCDO personnel (including in-person representatives with African ancestry, who understand first-hand the issues in focus, from lived experience, policy knowledge and research expertise) will be presented at the next Forum sessions over the months and years to come.
The Draft Declaration – Some Provisional Statements
By the end of the eight sessions, the following points were submitted as the basis of the draft UN Declaration on the Rights of People of African Descent – shared by the Forum’s Special Rapporteur as a summary of collective preliminary observations and commitments:
- The PFPAD recognises the importance of representing a broad and inclusive civil society from all regions of the world
- The PFPAD confirms the full and effective implementation of the Durban Declaration
- The Forum recognises that intersected experiences of racism impact differently for a diversity of people of African descent – including LGBTQiA+, those who identify as non-binary, linguistic minorities, disabled people, etc.
- The PFPAD will advance an instructive standard against racism, racial discrimination, “Afri-phobia” (also, “Afro-phobia”), xenophobia, marginalisation and related intolerances against people of African descent
- The Forum recognises the specific issues and crises being experienced in Haiti. The PFPAD acknowledges the country’s pioneering role in the struggles for emancipation from enslavement and also Haiti’s symbolic and commemorative place in relation to the African Diaspora.
- It is inadequate to respond to racism solely in terms of taking action at the level of interpersonal events and experiences. Systemic, structural and institutionalised forms of racism must also be recognised, addressed, challenged and eradicated.
- Issues of migration will feature prominently in the Forum’s current and future work.
- The PFPAD advocates the necessity of using disaggregated data to inform policies and practices for eliminating systemic racism and racialised inequalities.
- The Forum will consolidate the pillars of the first International Decade of People of African Descent (IDPAD, 2015-2024) – re. recognition, justice and development – by extending the IDPAD through to 2025, and observing another decade through to 2035.
- The PFPAD will rally a consolidated effort towards full restoration of the dignity of people of African descent by confronting and addressing the legacies of the past.
The Next Meeting of the Permanent Forum (New York, 2023)
The next gathering of the Permanent Forum of People of African Descent takes place in New York, from 30th May – 2nd June 2023, with the option of extended sessions and working groups appended beyond these dates to accommodate more feedback, evidentiary research data and recommendations submitted by NGOs, activist groups and other civil society stakeholders.
Web Links and Further Information
International Decade of People of African Descent (2015-2024) – Articles and Publications
United Nations Webcast Recording: Inclusion of People of African Descent in the Sustainable Development Agenda: The Case for Climate Justice (Tuesday, 6 December 2022) – https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1i/k1ifu5c068
United Nations Webcast Recording: Inclusion of People of African Descent in the Sustainable Development Agenda: The Case for Reparatory Justice (Tuesday, 6 December 2022) – https://media.un.org/en/asset/k14/k14llu7ijc
United Nations Webcast Recording: Connecting the Past and the Future – Equality for All People of African Descent (Wednesday, 7 December) – https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1g/k1g6gytika
United Nations Webcast Recording: The future work of the Permanent Forum of People of African Descent: Feedback from Participants (Thursday, 8 December 2022) – https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1n/k1n6n1vx9h
Written by Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D.
Researcher and Education Consultant
Civil society (CSO/Academic) delegate, Geneva, 5-8 December 2022
Co-founder and co-editor, Decolonial Dialogues (Shared Space)
Website: Museum Geographies – https://museumgeographies.com/
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