I have recently visited Goree Island in Senegal, the infamous “door of no return” from which countless Africans were sent in chains to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. As I moved around the island where thousands of human beings were traded as commodities, I was particularly appreciative that the United Nations General Assembly had made 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent. At the center of this initiative is the promotion of the economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of people of African descendants, as well as their participation and integration in all aspects of society.
An early opportunity to reinvigorate advocacy is the annual commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which falls on March 21. This date was chosen because it marks the massacre that occurred in1960 when 69 demonstrators were shot and killed during a non-violent protest against apartheid in Sharpeville, South Africa. The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is an annual reminder that we must act more decisively to combat racism, discrimination and intolerance. The increasing number of incidences in various parts of the world proves that enhanced commitments to full and effective implementation of international human rights law to counter these scourges are urgently needed.
Unlike previous commemorations, this year's International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has a special focus on people of African descent to highlight persistent exclusion and marginalization that continue to affect them. Many of these people are the progeny of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, one of the greatest stains on human conscience.
The statistics bear out the enormity of this crime against humanity. Although estimates vary due to a lack of accurate documentation, it is thought that around 14 million Africans were transported to the Americas as slaves, and an additional 14 million were sent to the East.
In the Americas alone, the number of Afro-descendents exceeds 200 million and many of them live in dire circumstances. They are often among those who are affected the most by poverty, unemployment and precarious living conditions. This is not a mere accident of fate. We must recognize that at the root of this deplorable reality is structural discrimination that had its origins in places like Goree Island.
Indeed, the legacy of the slave trade persists in many of today's practices. We see reflections of discrimination against African descendants in racial profiling, overrepresentation in prison populations and poor access to quality education, justice and health services. All these obstacles, created by prejudice, intolerance and inequality, deny millions of people their universal human rights.
As recently as April 2009, at the Durban review conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance 182 States agreed that a renewed commitment was imperative to counter these scourges. It is high time to heed these pledges.
While UN commemorations offer opportunities to discuss and tackle the many challenges that people of African descent continue to face due to racism and racial discrimination, they also provide high profile platforms to showcase and celebrate their myriad contributions in all areas of human endeavour. In the arts and sciences, the law and politics, people of African descent have etched their mark in history, shaped nations and advanced the highest ideals of freedom, progress, resilience, industry, and self-reliance.
Yet, in too many cases, history books, school curricula, and oral traditions do not accurately reflect the wealth and span of African descendants' heritage, work and achievements. These wilful or negligent gaps must be filled with the narratives of pain, strife and success that uniquely belonged to people of African descent and that they continue to experience.
I hope that 2011 will generate profound discussions regarding the challenges facing people of African descent and provide a multiplicity of fora where innovative proposals and solutions to face up to these challenges can be found.
I call on every person of good will to ensure that States and communities around the world respect international human rights law. Let us make it our goal on this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for each of us to express solidarity with people of African descent and generate long overdue remedies that can address their plight and aspirations, their rights and entitlement to a life in dignity and prosperity.
The writer is Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights