GENEVA (IPS)–The United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent began late November sessions without the participation of the big powers, which oppose the panel tasked to study racial discrimination.

The Western Europe bloc, which under the UN human rights framework encompasses all industrialized countries, has so far failed to designate an expert to represent it in the five-member Working Group.

“We are assuming that one will never be named because the nations of the North have a negative attitude with respect to the Working Group,” commented Mercedes Moya, of the Strategic Alliance of African Descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Developing countries played a key role in the creation of the group–approved last April by the UN Commission on Human Rights, the guiding forum for this issue–as they were able to gather more votes than were Western Europe, Israel, Malta and some countries of Eastern Europe, among others. The United States was not a member of the commission during those sessions.

The experts comprising the Working Group are chairman Peter Lesa Kasanda of Zambia, George Nicolas Jabbour of Syria, and Irina Zlatescu of Romania.

The fourth member was to be from Western Europe, which did not name a representative. The fifth expert, Roberto Borges Martins, did not show up in Geneva for the November sessions.

Diplomatic sources said Mr. Martins was delayed in Brazil due to prior commitments arising from his post-voting work for his country’s president-elect, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

During the current session, which ended Nov. 29, and the upcoming session scheduled for February 2003, the Working Group is to draft a report that will be presented to the Commission on Human Rights, which begins its own sessions in March 2003.

This meeting drew representatives from a handful of countries, mostly Latin American and Caribbean, and from civil society organizations.

In the first day of sessions, the attendance of independent groups was to be limited to non-governmental organizations holding consultative status in the UN Economic and Social Commission. But the Working Group ultimately decided to admit all civil society groups to the meetings.

The Working Group’s mandate is to gather information from a broad variety of sources about racism affecting people of African descent and about ways to eliminate discrimination.

The group also is expected to propose provisions that would ensure African descendants of judicial systems and mechanisms to promote and protect their human rights.

The term “Afro-descendants” was adopted at the meeting of representatives of these communities a year ago in La Ceiba, Honduras, sponsored by the Working Group on Minorities, of the Sub-Commission on Human Rights, the advisory body to the Commission.

Silis Muhammad, a civil society representative from the United States and leader of the All for Reparations and Emancipation (AFRE), said these steps contribute to the political re-establishment of Afro-descendants within the “human family.”

Latin American activist Moya noted that Afro-descendants are confident that the Working Group will contribute to increasing the visibility of their community and its aspirations.

Chile’s representative, Juan Enrique Vega, agreed that through the agreements established at the World Conference against Racism, which took place last year in the South African city of Durban, Afro-descendants had achieved the level of visibility of other victims of racism.

The international community recognizes that descendants of Africans in all countries where they are found constitute a specific group that suffers the effects of racism, as do indigenous peoples, immigrants and refugees, said Mr. Vega, speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean Group.

Etzer Charles, representative from Haiti, recommended that the Working Group take up the integration problems of “some Black minorities” who are socially and geographically marginalized, living in ghettos.

Bertrand Ramcharan, UN deputy high commissioner for human rights, said in his opening address Nov. 25 that the “social and economic stratification has often resulted from the legacy of slavery, colonialism, institutionalized racial discrimination–and in some societies, these racially defined factors persist.”

Barbados delegate Erskine Griffith said in a presentation before the Working Group that his government was greatly displeased with a decision taken recently by the African and African Descendants NGO Follow-Up to the World Conference Against Racism, which “effectively barred persons of non-African descent from participation in their proceedings.”

At that Oct. 1-6 meeting in the Barbados capital, delegates voted to prohibit attendance by anyone who was not of African descent, thereby excluding representatives of British organizations who had made the trip to Bridgetown for the follow-up meeting.