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What Will the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent Mean for Europe?

This year marks the beginning of the UN International Decade for People of African Descent 2015–2024. The Open Society Foundations asked scholar-activist Michael McEachrane, member of the Swedish NGO Fight Racism Now, and the newly formed European Network of People of African Descent, about the Decade in Europe.

Could you share a few words about the UN International Decade for People of African Descent 20152024 and its relevance to Europe?

Across Europe, people of African descent are among the most socially vulnerable racial or ethnic groups. This is clearly shown in the most comprehensive survey on minority discrimination in Europe to date, the European Union Minority and Discrimination Survey (2009).  

In November last year, the UN General Assembly adopted a program of activities for the International Decade for People of African Descent. It is meant to contribute to the full implementation of the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action [PDF]—the world’s most comprehensive human rights instrument against racism.

The Decade’s theme is recognition, justice, and development. It’s an opportunity to recognize how across the world people of African descent are particularly vulnerable to racism and marginalization. It is an opportunity to encourage states to implement comprehensive political measures to ensure human rights protections and equity for people of African descent. This includes rights to development, measures against poverty, and access to basic goods such as health care, education, housing, and employment.  

Here in Sweden, where I live, people of African descent are the racial or ethnic group most subjected to hate crimes (especially violent hate crimes), have the lowest return from their education and the highest rates of unemployment, are most likely to live in low-income housing projects, and so on.

This situation is merely a continuation of many hundred years of European history. It is a history that has included notions of black people as racially inferior—sub-human even—and the exploitation of the natural resources and peoples of the African continent, most notably through the transatlantic enslavement, trafficking, and genocide of Africans.           

The UN Decade offers a unique opportunity to repair the legacies of this history. It requires states to take concrete and practical steps through the adoption and effective implementation of national and international legal frameworks, policies, and programs to combat anti-black racism. It also calls on states to engage with people of African descent on appropriate and effective measures to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of slavery, the slave trade, and the transatlantic slave trade of captured African people.

What and who is the European Network of People of African Descent (ENPAD)?

ENPAD currently consists of 20 member organizations in nine European countries. Its three main working groups focus on grassroots mobilization, political advocacy, and communications. Among its goals is to raise public awareness of anti-black racism in Europe—for example, by organizing international public manifestations around the Dutch Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) tradition—and to advocate for national action plans against racial discrimination (according to UN guidelines [PDF]), as well as for an EU framework for people of African descent. The network, which hopes to meet twice per year throughout the Decade, gives members an opportunity to exchange best practices and launch various collaborative efforts.

What is the European Reparations Commission?

The European Reparations Commission (ERC) is one of the first initiatives to come out of ENPAD. In 2013, Caribbean heads of state established the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) to promote reparatory justice for the deprivations of genocide, slavery, and legal segregation. Since then it has developed a 10-point action plan for reparations that includes formal apologies by the governments of Europe, indigenous peoples’ development programs, and debt cancellation.

Inspired by the CRC, and wanting to support its efforts from within Europe, a group of us in ENPAD decided to establish the ERC. The ERC is now a distinct entity, although still in close partnership with ENPAD.

With the help of the Open Society Foundations, a delegation from the ERC and ENPAD was able to attend a recent international summit on reparations in New York. During the summit we met with representatives of the CRC, the newly formed National African American Reparations Commission, and representatives of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to discuss cross-Atlantic collaborations.

Reparatory justice for the negative effects of colonialism and slavery may seem like a lofty goal. Is it achievable?

I would certainly hope so. Reparatory justice for the effects of colonialism and slavery is arguably our most pressing global justice issue. Much of what we call today “globalization” has been shaped by several hundred years of European colonialism. For example, this is largely true of the inequalities between the rich and poor, so-called developed and underdeveloped nations of the world. It is also true of the racial hierarchies that are still to be found, for instance, in Europe and former European settler colonies throughout the Americas.

And rather than compensating the enslaved with the ending of their enslavement, European states compensated the slave owners for the loss of their property and imposed the racial apartheid of colonial and Jim Crow laws. There has really never been any political effort by European states either to recognize the lingering effects of colonialism and slavery or to repair its legacies. Through initiatives launched by ENPAD and our work in the ERC, we are hoping to raise awareness among the public and political officials of the need for such repair, including political measures for people of African descent in Europe. 

Fight Racism Now and other members of the European Network of People of African Descent are grantees of the Open Society Foundations.

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