We must confront the legacy of slavery, tackle systemic racism

Epsy Barr - Chair, Forum on People of African Descent.

 Epsy Alejandra Campbell Barr, Chair of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, emphasizes the need for African descendants and Africans to collaborate in addressing common challenges. By: kingsley Ighobor

“Epsy Alejandra Campbell Barr served as Costa Rica's Vice President from 2018 to 2022 and currently chairs the UN-established Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, focusing on improving the socioeconomic conditions of African descendants. In this October 2023 interview with Africa Renewal's Kingsley Ighobor, Ms. Campbell Barr discusses the Forum's efforts to address the challenges facing African descendants. Here are excerpts from the interview.”

The Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, of which you are the chair, was operationalized in 2021. Could you provide more information about its objectives?

First, I want to emphasize that in the Americas and the Caribbean, there are more than 200 million people of African descent. Brazil alone has a population of over 100 million individuals of African descent. Our roots trace back to Africa, primarily due to the transatlantic slave trade involving the trafficking of Africans to the Americas. A significant number of people of African descent are descendants of those who endured this tragic chapter in history.

For many years, we have been engaged in discussions about the rights of people of African descent. 

A milestone was reached during the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, where, for the first time, descendants of Africans were officially recognized as a group that suffers from systemic racism and racial discrimination. 

This recognition was a significant step, considering that our struggle for rights began with the enslavement of our ancestors.

It took a long time for the international community to recognise us as people of African descent, and further recognition was achieved through the United Nations. The General Assembly’s declaration of the Decade of People of African Descent [2015 to 2024] signifies the United Nations' recognition of our reality of racism and racial discrimination.

Nevertheless, we continue to seek the development of specific programmes for Africans and people of African descent. 

We call for greater support from various African descendants’ communities in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, to unite and assert their rights. 

Based on available data, individuals of African descent occupy the lowest rungs of society, be it in the social, economic, or political spheres.

During my tenure as vice president of my country, our government championed the establishment of the International Day of People of African Descent, which is now celebrated on the 31st of August, and, partnering with Chad, led efforts to rally support for the General Assembly’s adopting of a resolution to operationalize the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent

What do the 200 million People of African Descent have in common with Africans?

Firstly, when you see me, you see an African woman. We already identify ourselves as African descendants. 

Secondly, we share a common history that originated in Africa. 

Thirdly, this history was marked by colonialism. 

Fourthly, we have retained the African culture, which has evolved in various parts of the world while maintaining roots in African history. We are treated as black people all over the world.

Lastly, we are recognized as black people worldwide, which means we encounter similar challenges as African nations. The African Union recognizes the African Diaspora as the continent's sixth region.

We face systemic racism, even within our own nations, even after centuries of residing in this hemisphere. 

We have contributed to the development of these countries, yet we are not treated as equals. We endure higher rates of poverty, fewer opportunities for economic advancement, and are often marginalized in political spheres. 

When I was elected vice president of my country, it surprised many that a black woman of African descent could hold such a position in a non-black country.

Does the Forum collaborate with African governments?

We need greater engagement with African governments. We must have a political understanding that our reality is intertwined with that of Africa. 

Today, I presented my report as the chair of the Permanent Forum to the UN Third Committee, and not one African country took the floor to participate. 

I am pleased to have received an invitation from the President of Ghana to attend a major conference on reparations [14 – 17 November]. As a Forum, we believe that reparations are an important issue for Africans and African descendants. 

How do you work with the various UN agencies, funds, and programmes?

We work closely with several UN agencies, such as UNFPA, where Natalia Kanem, the executive director, is actively engaged with our work. We also collaborate with UN Women, particularly on issues related to women of African descent in the Caribbean. 

While we engage with other agencies, we require more substantial support, given our mandate, which includes advising these agencies and the General Assembly. 

However, we need more logistical and administrative support. It is imperative to establish closer working ties with various UN agencies, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Do you partner with civil society and Non-Governmental Organisations?

Certainly, we have a responsibility to consult with civil society. We have had open sessions in Geneva and New York, with over 1,600 civil society and community organisations participating. In December, we plan to hold consultations with civil society organisations in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

We are in the process of gathering information about people of African descent in the Middle East and other regions. Civil society organisations provide invaluable support, empowering our work within the UN. Without their backing, our actions would be constrained. We cannot rely solely on a small group of experts; we must collaborate with diverse civil society groups worldwide.

Your role appears to be predominantly advocacy-focused. How does advocacy translate into actionable policies? Do you, for example, make policy recommendations to governments?

Indeed, we are mandated to make recommendations and provide advice to the General Assembly. One of our objectives is to achieve the declaration of human rights for people of African descent, which would serve as a framework for their rights. 

Our role extends beyond mere dialogue; we also facilitate the exchange of experiences, including best practices in various fields and gather essential data to accurately portray their reality. 

The SDG agenda includes goals addressing racial inequality. We must participate in the Summit of the Future. We need to engage in discussions concerning artificial intelligence, considering the racial algorithm gap that disproportionately affects us.

Your Forum is also tasked with gathering disaggregated data on people of African descent, taking into account factors such as sex, age, race, ethnicity, and more. How much progress have you made in this regard?

Data disaggregation is important because it enables us to comprehend how racism manifests in various aspects of life— economy, health, housing and more—so that we can make policies that address lingering challenges. We have made significant strides in this area. For instance, most countries in Latin America have included questions related to self-identification in their censuses. 

The UN Economic Commission in Latin America is also actively involved in collecting relevant data.

These efforts have resulted in important data and a comprehensive profile of people of African descent. 

Nevertheless, we still require more disaggregated data, especially within the global health system.  

The countries must do more. In Panama’s 2010 census, for instance, approximately 9 percent of the population self-identified as people of African descent. However, in the census conducted last year, over 30 percent of the population identified as such.

When your tenure concludes, what legacy do you hope to leave behind, and how do you define success?

Firstly, we have to achieve the declaration of human rights for people of African descent, to bring about significant improvements in the lives of millions of individuals. 

Secondly, we need political will regarding the issue of reparations. We must confront the enduring legacy of the past, as it continues to impact the lives of millions of individuals. 

Thirdly, I envision the establishment of a global fund for people of African descent. We require additional resources to address the challenges faced by millions of people, particularly women and young individuals who represent the present and the future.

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