Hundreds of people gathered in Geneva last week for the first session of the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent. For those who have spent decades advocating for the mechanism and for anti-racism campaigners, it was a “milestone” moment.
The atmosphere at the Palais des Nations last week was unusually electric. Bursts of applause bounced back and forth from the wooden walls of the old-fashioned conference Room XVIII as activists, lawyers and government officials took the floor to denounce racism and intolerance at the first-ever session of the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.
Established in 2021, the anti-racism body is the highest-level advisory body to the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council on addressing racism, racial discrimination and the legacy of slavery. While the four-day meeting in Geneva was hailed by many of the participants as a historic moment, they warn that the body has enormous work ahead.
For Vincent Warren, executive director of the US-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which works on issues including ending stop and frisk police methods and challenging police killings of black people, the forum is a place where people who have been directly suffering from racism can finally tell their stories. “States are going to answer very, very difficult questions about how they support the mechanisms that perpetuate structural racism,” he said.
From environmental injustices, the reproductive rights of black women to the painful vestiges of the slave trade era, complex issues that countries struggle to rectify will be on the table, Warren said. The forum comes after years of advocacy from activists, states from the Global South as well as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“This is a milestone,” Afro Costa Rican activist and poet Shirley Campbell Barr and former regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean region at the UN Population Fund Harold Robinson told Geneva Solutions. “This is the result of the people’s efforts but also of 400 years of struggle.” The couple has been actively following and pushing for a serious conversation on racism and its historical baggage at the UN General Assembly.
Even in countries like Costa Rica, considered to be a role model on social mobility, racism is “permanent and constant”, Campbell Barr said. “The UN as the highest level institution should hold countries to account and this forum will serve as the body that advises Geneva and New York on this matter.”
The campaigner is the sister of former Costa Rican vice president Epsy Campbell Barr, who lobbied hard in 2021 for the establishment of the body and currently sits on it as one of its 10 members.
From Durban to Geneva
As delegates from regions across the world took the floor last week, they spoke words of solidarity for the fight against racism and in support of the forum’s work. But the body is the outcome of a process that has come with its fair share of controversy.
The beginning of the story can be traced back to 2001 in the coastal city of Durban, South Africa, where a blueprint to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and other intolerances was drawn up. The US and Israel reportedly walked out in protest against a proposed text in the draft document to label zionism as racism.
The wording was finally dropped but a slighted Israel and the US refuse to this day to recognise the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA). The two, along with a growing number of European states, have boycotted its commemorations in 2009, 2011 and in 2021, accusing it of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment as well as Arab states attempting to ban blasphemy under the guise of human rights.
The Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, which is due to hold alternating high-level meetings every year in Geneva and New York, was formed as a follow-up to the DDPA. The resolution under which the forum was formally established was adopted by consensus at the UN General Assembly last year, a step away from previous divisions. However, certain issues were still a source of contention ahead of the vote.
The text, for example, gives the forum a mandate to contribute to the elaboration of a new declaration on the rights of people of African descent.
Certain delegations, including the United Kingdom and the US, which were reticent to the idea of a new instrument, pointed out that drafting a new UN declaration was the job of member states and not the forum.
Atoning for the past
Despite disagreements, the forum is working on a draft text and presented its first version at the meeting. In the document, the DDPA is acknowledged. Kerry Mclean, co-chair of the US-based National Conference of Black Lawyers’ international affairs section, told Geneva Solutions that she and her colleagues “would not give up on DDPA” because it was “central work” and was launching a petition to keep it in the forum’s draft declaration.
Echoing her remarks, Campbell Barr and Robinson said “DDPA is the way to go”.
The DDPA among other things recognises the slave trade as a crime against humanity, that the Holocaust must never be forgotten and that the Palestinian people are under occupation. It also urges states to compensate victims. For Warren, countries have a long way to go on the issues of reparations.
“If a state wants to resolve the question of reparations, the first thing that they would need to do is acknowledge that harm was done. And that includes both historic harms and the current effects of those harms. The second thing that they need to do is to stop the current forms of racism and racial discrimination from continuing. The third thing is to ensure that the harms that happened in the past and that are happening now do not happen in the future,” said Warren.
“Before we even get to the question of reparations, in terms of land, money and resources, all three of those things are immediate steps that states can take but they are almost uniformly reluctant to do so.”
Robinson pointed out that reparations can be addressed in different forms. At the international level, former colonies could seek debt relief, for example. Domestically, states could also take measures of affirmative action to increase participation of black people in the public sphere.
These are issues that former colonial states have historically pushed back on. But contrary to the previous Durban conferences, the forum seems to appease some qualms, with countries like the US, Israel and Canada attending the first session.
Warren points out that the DDPA will still be the main obstacle for the US but points out that it has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with political alliances.
The forum members will prepare a report with recommendations that they will present at the UN General Assembly in 2023. While galvanised by the beginning of the process, advocates know that it is just a first step in the right direction and that there is also a risk of no real progress.
“The fact that we need this forum means that we haven’t advanced far enough,” said Shirley Campbell Barr.
For Blaise Bulonza of the Initiative pour l’avenir meilleur, a local organisation working with people crippled by the armed conflict in Sud Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, “the forum is an opportunity to ring the alarm bells”. However, countries must agree to restrictive measures in order for concrete actions to be taken towards eliminating discrimination, he warned.
Warren is aware that the fight against racism is not even close to being won. “When I first started out as a young activist, I would not be satisfied unless I saw real change by the time I went to bed. Having been in this work for a while, I'm more aware of the steps that it takes to shift thinking amongst decision makers, and then to hold the thinking in place.”
“These things do take a while, [when] just in the United States context, in the 400 years of struggle around combating white supremacy, 20 years doesn't seem like a lot.”