GENEVA (IPS)–The United States and the European Union are ignoring the work of a group of intellectuals who are studying–at the behest of the United Nations–the problem of race discrimination suffered by people of African descent, rights activists have complained.

According to the International Association Against Torture (IAAT), the members of the West European and Other States (WEOS) bloc are “boycotting” the session, under way recently, of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, a body created in 2002 by the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Representatives of the United States, EU and other industrialized countries are conspicuously absent from the discussions being held at the UN Palais des Nations, the international forum’s headquarters in Geneva.


However, alongside the delegates from developing countries of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, are diplomats from some of the 15 nations of the EU–Finland, France, Greece and Ireland–but they are participating only in the name of their home countries, not the European bloc.

The New York-based IAAT claims that the boycott by the industrialized countries “is aimed at destroying the credibility of the Working Group.”

The Group’s roster, with one representative from each of five regions, includes Peter Lesa Kasanda for Africa; acting chairman George Jabbour for Asia; Irina Zlatescu for Eastern Europe; and R. Borges Martins for Latin America and the Caribbean.

In its conclusions from the first session, held in November, the Working Group lamented that it “could not benefit from the full membership of experts at its first session and believes that its work would have been greatly enhanced by the contributions of the remaining experts.”

Brazilian diplomat Borges Martins could not attend the inaugural session due to personal reasons, but in the current sessions he presented a report on discrimination against descendants of Africans in his country. The Group urged the Western European and other States to “nominate an expert as soon as possible,” but the appeal apparently fell on deaf ears.

The origins of the Working Group date to the World Conference against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

IAAT activists noted that the Western European and other states were opposed to the World Conference against Racism itself, and that during the meeting had “led the unsuccessful resistance to declaring the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity.”

Once the international conference was over, WEOS “tried to rearrange, reinterpret and distort the language of the Durban Declaration,” and refused to designate an expert for the Working Group, charges IAAT.

The human rights group applauded the fact that the UN High Commission for Human Rights, Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, addressed the delegates gathered for the Geneva sessions.

“But we are very concerned about the negative role that the Secretariat has too often played in the past as surrogate for the interests of the WEOS Group,” says IAAT.

At the upcoming session of the Commission on Human Rights, the highest UN forum on the issue, the WEOS Group, with its “unbridled arrogance”, comments the IAAT, “will argue against continuing the mandate of this Working Group.”

In spite of the tensions with the Western European bloc, the Working Group continued with its duties and the presentations of the first reports drafted by its members.

Asia delegate Jabbour took up the matter of reparations for slavery, one of the most contentious issues separating developing countries and the WEOS, which roundly objects to any possibility of compensation for the descendants of victims of slavery or of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“The word ‘reparations’ does not appear in the final documents” of the World Conference against Racism, he noted.

But, he said, the Durban meeting had produced “a form of ‘silent consensus’ that reparations for slavery is in harmony with the simple sense of justice and with the basic tenets of international law.”

Mr. Jabbour identified the three parties in the reparations relationship: “Those who are slave descendants, those who are descendants of slave traders and owners, and the public authority.”

He mentioned precedents for reparations, including cases contrary to notions of social justice, such as France, which abolished slavery in 1848, “and did not think of offering reparations to the slaves but instead offered them to the slave owners.”

“On the other hand,” said the delegate, “in the days of emancipation the United States government took a more righteous path when it promised each emancipated slave 40-acres and a mule,” a promise the United States never kept.

Additional elements that could serve as a basis for calculating reparations, are the sums conceded to the victims of the Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews in the 1940s, or to the Japanese-Americans held in U.S. detention camps, or to the Libyans captured by Italy in 1911.