Justin Hansford and Pastor Elías Murillo Martínez on the dais at the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent Credit: Contributed photo

The first meeting of the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on People of African Descent took place from Dec. 5 to 8 in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting, which was also livestreamed on UN Web TV, was the first time members of the Forum, created in August 2021, were able to come together and talk about how government policies across the world are affecting people of African descent.

Forum participants made ample reference to the guiding importance of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA), adopted 21 years ago at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which calls on world governments to take definitive actions to invest in education, housing, health care, environmental issues and equal employment opportunities for people of African descent. Those attending also spoke of the symbolic significance of the Black Lives Matter movement protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020.

Pastor Elías Murillo Martínez, a lawyer from Colombia who is an inaugural member of the Forum, explained to the AmNews, “The Permanent Forum on People of African Descent is a platform of the utmost importance to amplify the voices of people of African descent on the road to recognition, justice and development. It will allow us to search for alternatives aimed at solving the structural problems that affect us, the systemic racism that affects people of African descent.”

Justin Hansford, director of Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, who is also an elected member of the Permanent Forum, commented that “This is really the dream of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X and so many people who have fought for human rights for Black people for generations––to have this global platform and be able to take our case before the United Nations.”

Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, called the opening of the Forum a recognition of the resilience of African people after 500-plus years of enslavement, discrimination, and the denial of land and compensation. Kanem lifted up the names of a few of the numerous activists who have made history fighting for Black people’s rights: “Queen Nzinga. Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Toussaint Louverture. Nanny of the Maroons. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Marcus Mosiah Garvey. W.E.B. DuBois. Fernando Ortiz. Audre Lorde. Martin Luther King Jr. James Baldwin. Angela Davis. Our grandmothers and our forefathers took bold acts of great courage to bring us to this moment. Heroes past and present fought and sacrificed to make this achievement a reality,” she told those in attendance.

Various governments and civil society representatives made statements that allowed them to talk about how racism affects Black communities. Joyce McMillan, the executive director of  New York City’s JMacForFamilies (Just Making A Change For Families; https://jmacforfamilies.org/) spoke about having “experienced the dehumanizing and devaluing effects of policies that shape the U.S. child welfare system, a system that is rooted in slavery and colonialism. The policies that govern this system encourage and support the over-surveillance and policing of Black families.”

Black Canadians spoke about their creation this past July of the Halifax Declaration, which calls for, among other things, more accountability and recognition of police violence against Afro Canadians and educational reform to address anti-Black racism. Afro Mexicans spoke about how they are being displaced from land their families have lived on for decades, and how the racism in their country continues to deny their communities’ existence. Conrad Bryan of Ireland’s Association of Mixed Race Irish talked about the children of African fathers and Irish mothers who were abandoned in Catholic church-run mother-and-baby homes. “Our childhoods were stolen,” Bryan said. “Our childhoods were stolen. In its 2021 state apology the Irish state recognized for the first time in its history that children of different racial backgrounds were left institutionalized because of an unjust belief that they were unsuitable for family life such as adoption or fostering. This long-term institutionalization resulted in multiple and intersectional violations of the human rights of children of African descent. We welcomed the state apology after years of campaigning, but we are still fighting for separate recognition in the state’s reparation scheme that is currently being developed in Ireland. An apology on its own without recognizing adequate redress is simply not enough … It’s not simply enough to say sorry. States must be brave and act. They must recognize that we do have rights under Article 6 of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We do have rights to reparations: be bold and take steps to act now.”

Barbados Ambassador Matthew Wilson presented his government’s statement to the Forum which pointed to the CARICOM Reparations Commission’s 10-point plan to help move nations toward reparative justice. Barbados also called for the U.N. to ensure that the Forum has the resources to act on any of the work it plans to put in place.

Statements from governments and civil society groups were heard throughout the 4-day event. Some 900 organizations registered to submit statements to the Forum, but there wasn’t enough time to hear them all. Forum representatives are hoping that the second session of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, set to take place at the U.N. in New York from May 30 to June 2, 2023, can be extended to last more than three days, so that more statements can be taken, and more discussion can take place.

At the end of 2023, Forum representatives will submit a report and raise issues with U.N. governing bodies about methods for tackling some of the issues Black people face throughout the world.

Howard University’s Justin Hansford told the Amsterdam News, “We want to try to get resources to Black people who need it. Really, at the end of the day, that’s the goal. And that can include financial resources, it can include interacting with local governments, businesses, churches—whoever we can interact with to try to make sure that some of our crises get addressed…This Forum can bring people together, help people begin to learn from each other so that we can then help each other and support Black liberation.”

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  1. I agree that adequate resources well spent in an accountable prioritized manner is the key to meeting needs and for advancing African people. An improved future rests on access to sustainable resources.
    I would like to help in fund raising snd grants management.

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