Assistant Secretary General Speech


March 26, 2021 - Washington, DC

Dr. Anthony Wutoh, Provost, Howard University
Dr. Marilyn Sephocle, Professor, Department of World Languages and Cultures
Dr. Okunini Msomi Moor, Florida Memorial University
Dr. Clement Akassi, moderator, Howard University
Distinguished ladies who I am proud to salute during this celebratory month of all Women.
My fellow Gentlemen

I am honored to make my contribution to the 25th Annual Women Ambassadors Conference: Diplomacy in Times of Pandemic, hosted by the prestigious Howard University, recognized among outstanding Historically Black Colleges and Universities, with illustrious alumni such as Vice President Harris, who must be doubly celebrated as we highlight during the month of March Women around the world and Persons of African descent in the Americas. In recognizing this noble center of academic excellence, I applaud President of the Women Ambassadors Foundation, Dr. Marilyn Sephocle, and thank her for extending an invitation to me to join you on today’s panel, speaking on the theme “Social Inclusion in the Americas: Afro-Latinos and the UN Decade for Peoples of African Descent." The OAS looks forward to expanding the level of collaboration with Howard University through potential future partnerships with the Model OAS program for Universities, and through avenues for fostering leadership and an appreciation for diplomacy and multilateralism.

I offer apologies that I am unable to be physically with you as prior commitments preclude me from so doing. As we speak, the OAS is closing the curtains on a successful Fourth Inter-American Week for People of African Descent in the Americas, a week established by the Member States to commemorate the considerable contributions of persons of African descent to the hemisphere.

Indeed, activities commemorating this important Week at the OAS were closely reflective of the topic of today’s panel. In both instances, the selected themes are aligned with the UN International Decade for People of African Descent, a celebration of African culture and heritage throughout the world, a space for recognizing the contribution of afro-descendant people to history and to the gamut of endeavors, including those related to politics, economy, and society.
My presentation will reflect on the main challenges faced by vulnerable groups and offer some insight into the region’s efforts at promoting social inclusion within the context of the Decade for People of African Descent in the Americas.

Given the times, I would be remiss if I did not raise for your attention the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on afro-descendant people throughout our hemisphere, and point out the correlation with the attendant risk this poses to a permanent widening of the social inclusion gap. COVID-19 has opened breaches in pre-existing inequalities across the board, including along gender, racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and other social fault lines. In the absence of affirmative actions to counteract this regression, there is a real threat of a reversal in the progress achieved in recent decades by women and other marginalized groups.

While a notable percentage of the labor force began working from home in 2020, an analysis of this reality in the context of gender would reveal that the impact was particularly significant for women. “Stay Home” has meant that more women than men, and particularly women of color, have departed the labor market over the last year, due in large measure to the fact that the laudable contribution made by women is concentrated in the sectors that have borne the brunt of the impact of the pandemic, including a differentiated and disproportionate burden in the service sector including tourism, the informal economy, domestic work, and to a large extent the health sector and other essential services.

Moreover, virtual school, illness, and the need to care for dependent family members have resulted in an exponential increase in the load of caregiving generally shouldered by women. Women, and particularly women of color, also constitute the preponderance of “essential” workers, a statistic that sees them overly represented in the health sector at the rate of over 80% of nurses, over 50% of doctors and care workers for the elderly, persons with disabilities, and those with chronic illnesses.

There is a real felt need for affirmative policies and actions to ensure that “Stay Home” does not result, surreptitiously and as a matter of course, in a permanent reality for women and other marginalized groups.

The OAS Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) has responded to the crisis by highlighting the range, dimension, and impact of the pandemic on the lives of women, through technical assistance, by articulating language and recommendations for addressing this potential work-life imbalance, and by establishing alliances and cooperation mechanisms with the National Machineries for the Advancement of Women, other government sectors, civil society, academia, with agencies of the Inter-American and international human rights systems, and with the European Union.

For many Persons of African Descent in the Americas, not only did 2020 see the visitation of a pandemic, but it also proved to be a year during which the fates unmasked the persistent discrimination and structural racism faced by Afro-descendants. Thanks to technological advancements and the glare of the media, 2020 also differentiated itself from experiences of past years by the level of visibility and exposure accorded such acts of racism, as well as in the public and private confrontation that ensued in the face of instances of the denial of equitable and fair treatment to people of African descent.

The vestiges of slavery have not all faded with the passing centuries post-emancipation. One appalling legacy of slavery is the historic denial of the contributions, the rights, and even of the humanity of people of African descent, as well as the cultivated belief that people of African descent are somehow less deserving. Here are some sobering statistics which are a direct consequence of this legacy:

• 90% of the Afro-descendant populations in the countries of the region live in poverty and extreme poverty, and in many cases, do not enjoy universal access to health, education, housing, and potable water services.

• Approximately 70-80% of Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean earn less than US $2 per day. They represent an inordinate share of the poor in the region, with approximately 40% of the total afro-descendant population living in poverty. Afro-descendant people in our region are more likely to be born into poor households, less likely to be afforded access to quality education, and more likely to encounter steeper challenges to entering and remaining in the labor market where they then earn lower than average wages.

• The income gap between ethnic minorities and the rest of the population, in countries where such information is available, is almost 40%.

• Afro-descendant populations also face barriers to participating in democracy, since they are overwhelmingly represented in the low-income socio-economic strata. Few countries have adequate representation of Afro-descendant populations in political decision-making spaces.

• A similar pattern is evidenced when it comes to access to justice. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), “States of the region still register excessive institutional violence by law enforcement institutions” – including racial profiling and police brutality. This is exacerbated by “impunity generated by the lack of investigation, sanction and reparation to the victims and their families, perpetrated by judicial institutions.”

In acting to address such glaring realities, several mechanisms have been created within the Inter-American sphere to tackle discrimination and exclusion, and to encourage respect for the rights of people of African descent in the Americas. These include:

• The Declaration of the Regional Conference of the Americas, approved during the Preparatory meeting for the Third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance), held in Santiago, Chile, in 2000.

• The Rapporteurship on the Rights of Afro-Descendants and against Racial Discrimination of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, created in 2005 to stimulate, systematize, reinforce, and consolidate the action of the Inter-American Commission on the rights of people of African-descendent and racial discrimination.

• The Declaration of Mar del Plata in the framework of the Fourth Summit of the Americas in 2005, which recognizes the value of equity and social inclusion for sustained economic growth, and as an indispensable condition to create jobs, fight extreme poverty, and overcome inequality in the Hemisphere.

• Since 2010 the OAS General Assembly adopted several resolutions regarding the recognition and Promotion of the Rights of Persons of African descent in the Americas

• In 2013, the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of intolerance was adopted in La Antigua, Guatemala and went into effect in November 2017.

Furthermore, in 2015 when the United Nations declared 2015-2024 as the International Decade of People of African Descent (2015-2024), the OAS General Assembly likewise recognized the Decade through a Special Meeting of the Permanent Council. Member States further reiterated support by building on the UN Declaration by adopting the Plan of Action for the Decade of People of African Descent in the Americas (2016-2025) during its General Assembly in 2016 to focus on the specific circumstances of people of African Descent in the Americas.

The Plan of Action has 3 strategic lines of action mirroring the UN Programme of activities for the implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent: Recognition, Justice and Development.

In February 2018, the OAS Member States approved a resolution to celebrate The Inter-American Week for People of African Descent in the Americas around the 25th of March of each year (the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade). This year’s theme under which we are observing the Inter-American Week for Persons of African Descent in the Americas reflects both the theme chosen by the United Nations in commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of African Descent in the Americas.

The establishment of the Inter-American Network of High-Level Authorities on Policies for Afro-descendant Populations (RIAFRO according to the Spanish acronym) was also aimed at promoting dialogue and coordination among national authorities in the implementation of policies for people of African Descent according to international and regional obligations in the Americas. The RIAFRO at present comprises Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, and the Technical Secretariat is managed by the Department of Social Inclusion of the OAS, with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University.

At the start of the UN International Decade for People of African Descent and the approval of the Plan of the Action, hope reigned supreme that 10 years was ample time to make significant changes to the situation of People of African Descent in the Americas. In retrospect, and having passed the midway point, we acknowledge some success, yet these are a mere start in a struggle that should never have had to be this long, and this arduous.

Entrenched racism and racial discrimination still permeate our hemisphere, and the struggle for equality for people of African Descent has been as onerous as it has been well worth the sustained effort. The OAS will never grow weary in the battle for the rights of all people of the Americas, including people of African-descent and all marginalized populations, and in defending the principle of equity and equality. The 2020 protests for social justice that have taken place around the world, including in Latin America, have shown that people of African Descent will never abandon the quest for respect, for fairness, and for their basic human rights. At the OAS, we are committed to doing our part to foster greater inclusion and enjoyment of rights for our Afro-descendant populations. In this, the people of the Americas can continue to count on the steadfast work of Organization of American States.

Thank you for your attention. It was a pleasure joining you today.