Assistant Secretary General Speech


March 24, 2022 - Washington, DC

H.E. Epsy Campbell Barr, Vice President of Costa Rica
Mr. Enrique Joseph, President of RIAFRO
Authorities of RIAFRO
Our distinguished panelists:
• Verene Shepherd from the Center for Reparations Research of the University of the West Indies
• Pastor Murillo, Member of the UN Permanent Forum for People of African Descent
• Michele Johnson of York University (Canada)
Officials from the OAS Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity

Ladies and Gentlemen

A pleasant good morning,

It is my distinct honor to deliver opening remarks at today’s webinar on “Reparations for People of African Descent in the Americas: A Necessary and Pending Debate?” Today’s event is being held during the Fifth Inter-American Week for People of African Descent in the Americas which is being observed under the theme, ““Stories of Courage in the Americas: Resistance to Slavery and Unity against Racism”. This theme compels us to take a reflective look at our hemisphere’s past, which has undeniably been tarnished by the unspeakable atrocities generated by centuries of slavery and the slave trade and their lasting impact on the socio-economic and political advancement of people of African Descent.

The subject of reparations for people of African Descent has been discussed in many fora, but still remains a controversial issue. It has been formally addressed on very few occasions within the ambit of the Organization of American States, and not within recent times. The last such occasion was in 2015 when the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Hon. Ralph Gonsalves addressed the Permanent Council during a Protocolary Session, so today’s webinar within the context of the OAS’ Inter-American Week for Persons of African descent is indeed timely.

While the issue of reparations remains contentious in many corners, there is now general consensus that slavery and the slave trade were atrocious acts in world history.
In September 2001, - through the Declaration of the Third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, also known as the Durban Declaration – the international community recognized that "slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance".

Despite this acknowledgement of the reprehensible nature of slavery and the slave trade, in many spheres, there is resistance to the idea that people of African Descent deserve some form of reparations for the abuse and barbarism endured by their ancestors, and the subsequent racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance that continue to impact their lives, as a legacy of slavery.

Within our hemisphere, Afro-descendants constitute a substantial part of the population. According to the OAS’ Goodwill Ambassador for the Rights of People of African Descent in the Americas, Dr. Henry Louis-Gates Junior, Latin America and the Caribbean has the largest concentration of people with African ancestry outside of Africa — up to 70 percent of the population in some countries. That notwithstanding, we continue to deny the rights of the estimated 200 million people of African descent in the Americas, which constitutes about 20% of the approximately 1 billion people who live in this Hemisphere.

In Latin America, Afro-descendants account for 30 per cent of the region's population but constitute more than half of the poor . The data speaks for itself. In that connection, in large measure, there is an undeniable link between the high levels of poverty experienced by people of African Descent in the Americas and the cumulative effects of the legacy of slavery and the resulting systemic racism, which continues to disenfranchise Afro descendant populations in the hemisphere. A few examples of the current day discriminatory practices that impede the socio-economic upward mobility of people of African descent include from limited access to financial capital, predatory loan schemes and housing discrimination, to discrimination in employment and hiring practices. Such discriminatory practices are the tangible results of slavery where the denials of wealth and equal rights began, and which have inevitably resulted in the development disparities we see in many of our countries today.

To this end, the work of the OAS seeks to bring awareness to the issues that people of African descent, perhaps more than any other ethnic group, continue to face and need to overcome.
Our work is premised on 4 strategic pillars: democracy, human rights, multi-dimensional security, and integral development. Interwoven among these pillars are our continued efforts to promote and protect the rights of groups that have been historically marginalized and subjected to incessant systemic racism and discriminatory practices.

As it relates to people of African descent, in 2016, the OAS General Assembly approved the Plan of Action for the Decade for People of African Descent in the Americas (2015-2026) in alignment with the United Nations’ declaration of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). Since then, the Organization has proactively sought to shed light on the topics of importance to people of African Descent in this Hemisphere through the annual celebration of the Inter-American Week for People of African Descent of the Americas, pertinent resolutions and declarations, and the tireless efforts of you the member States of RIAFRO.

In spite of these actions, however, a true appreciation of how to appropriately acknowledge the atrocities committed against Afro-descendants historically and at present is incomplete without a meaningful discussion on the issue of reparations. It is imperative that we listen to the diverse perspectives on this topic from throughout the region and that we take into consideration the myriad forms of reparative justice that have been ventilated.

In the OAS Plan of Action for the Decade for Persons of African Descent In the Americas, after arduous debate, Member States agreed to include language that acknowledged the movement by the Caribbean Community Reparations Commission for reparatory justice to correct the legacies of underdevelopment caused by the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean, and they also committed to promote and facilitate discussions on the issue among OAS Member States.

Additionally, in 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) called on States of the hemisphere to promote structural change that guarantees formal and material equality for all ethnic-racial groups and, to the extent possible, provide comprehensive reparations, with a view to achieving the visibility and dissemination of the Afro-descendant historical memory. The Commission also called on States to adopt measures of satisfaction, restitution of rights, guarantees of non-repetition, social recovery, and compensation for violations suffered, integrating an intersectional and intercultural perspective, in line with the standards of the Inter-American System, and the guidelines of the Plan of Action of the Decade for People of African Descent in the Americas (2016-2025).

That brings us to today’s event, which has been organized to continue our discussions on this important topic. In doing so, we heartily recognize the valuable work of the Inter-American Network of High Authorities on Policies for Afro-descendant Populations of the OAS, led by the Vice President of Costa Rica, Her Excellency Epsy Campbell.

Furthermore, in line with this year’s theme for the Inter-American Week for People of African Descent in the Americas, this is an opportune moment for us to unite in the fight against racism and confront the ills of the past through the implementation of appropriate remedial measures. It is my hope that we will be able to write a new chapter in the history of our Americas, one that redresses the wrongs of the past and forges a future based on tolerance, equality, and justice for all.

I welcome this exchange of ideas among OAS Member States on reparations for the Afro-descendant populations and I look forward to the discussion and results of this meeting. Above all, I thank you for your steadfast dedication to promoting this important agenda for the region.
Thank you very much.