"People of African descent are the children of the victims who survived the transatlantic slave trade and its subsequent migrations," explains Pastor Elías Murillo Martínez, a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.
In an interview with UN News, the independent expert adds that, from the point of view of the political process and social construction, Afro-descendants "are the set of individuals, families, peoples, communities, who share a history with social and cultural patterns that distinguish them from other ethnic groups and who are governed in some countries partially or totally by special legislation".
Afro-descendants are part of many societies and their contributions to them are countless; however, they have suffered historical discrimination and marginalisation that have placed them in a situation of vulnerability and systemic poverty.
Thus, it was not until the beginning of this century that they began to be recognised and included in the international agenda.
This delay has to do with the role of the state and the historical weight of racism and discrimination, which has led to denial and, worse, self-denial, with all the complexity that this entails.
According to UN figures, based on national censuses, in the Americas - not including the English-speaking Caribbean - for example, there are 200 million people who recognise themselves as people of African descent, an official number that underestimates the presence of this population.
"Self-denial is the deepest wound that enslavement left on the free peoples of the Americas," laments Murillo Martínez.
However, he considers that the fact that these 200 million people are self-recognised is important because it is the result of a process of incorporating the Afro-descendant variable in national censuses, which did not exist before 2000.
To push for the recognition of people of African descent as a specific group whose human rights must be promoted and protected, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the period from January 2015 to December 2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent.
The Decade has focused its plan of action on three axes: recognition, justice and development.
With just over two years to go before the end of the Decade, Murillo Martínez reviews the progress made:
"The recognition of Afro-descendants as a collective subject of international law considered in the broadest sense. This recognition as a subject of international law and this statistical visibility, the self-recognition of Afro-descendants, the emergence of their collective action in the Decade has meant the opportunity for an instance of cohesion for collective action", he affirms.
The expert also mentions the sensitivity at the level of countries and society as a whole, which reached a turning point after the assassination of George Floyd in May 2020 in the United States, as well as the visibility of the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Afro-descendant population. "The global rejection has shaken the collective consciousness and I would say that today the International Decade for People of African Descent and the confluence of these factors that feed back into each other constitute a very important advance in the level of recognition by states," he said.
In terms of justice, he pointed out that many countries have been progressively advancing in the adoption of ethnic recognition laws aimed at achieving equal opportunities that contain affirmative action measures in quotas.
With regard to development, Murillo Martínez said that it is lagging far behind and that the challenges are enormous, as is evident in the social and economic indicators.
For this reason, he believes that in order for countries to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, they will have to implement measures "that remove the root causes of racism and racial discrimination against people of African descent".
Another of the Decade's great achievements is that it has stimulated debate, for example with the proclamation of the International Day for People of African Descent and the establishment of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.
"In this phase of recognition of people of African descent, there is no dispute today that we were victims of the transatlantic slave trade and continue to be victims of its consequences. How do we move forward with reparations? We have to do it in three areas: moral reparation, spiritual reparation and material reparation".
On the moral aspect, he indicates that the Holy See made a unilateral declaration in 2016 committing itself to formulate, in collaboration with the spokespersons of the Afro-descendant population, a sort of papal encyclical acknowledging the role of the Catholic Church in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery.
With regard to spiritual reparation, he cites that countries are making progress in the restitution of objects that were taken during the process of enslavement in the colony of African countries and people of African descent in the different regions. For example, Belgium, France and Germany have set up reparation commissions focusing on spiritual and moral reparation, "but they also have to step forward in the sphere of material reparation", he emphasises.
He also notes that some universities in the United States "have acknowledged that much of their wealth came from or benefited from the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, as Harvard University just did a little over a month ago by creating a reparations fund of about $100 million based on that acknowledgement".
The World Bank will also move forward in the creation of a fund for the development of Afro-descendants in the category of material reparations.
As a member of the Forum, the expert has also presented other proposals:
"I have urged the Panamanian state to allocate, one, two, three days, an equal number of the tolls they receive for the transit of the Panama Canal so that the money goes to a reparation fund for Afro-descendants, which was created by the Organisation of American States (OAS), with the intention that through this channel, other countries, cities and port companies in Latin America where there is intersectionality between the Afro-descendant population, poverty and ports can contribute to reparation funds at national, regional or international level in favour of Afro-descendants".
Murillo Martínez recalls that enslaved people were brought from Africa to America, where they generated the wealth that went to Europe, giving rise to a triangular trade "which is the basis of capitalism today".
For this reason, also through the forum, he suggested implementing "a kind of sui generis free trade agreement" aimed at redefining this triangular trade by recognising the role of people of African descent, the transatlantic slave trade and enslavement in this area and that, as part of the mechanisms of historical reparation, "advantages and tariff benefits should be granted to the circulation of products and development options should be created, encouraging trade in terms of historical reparation".
Other groups and peoples have achieved recognition and justice before, why the delay in seeking justice and reparation mechanisms in the case of Afro-descendants?
"Before the Santiago conference in 2000 and Durban in 2001, it was a hidden reality that flew under the radar. Latin American countries shielded themselves in the mestizaje and ignored the reality of diversity and the presence of Afro-descendants. The systematic and historical invisibility and denial at the state level of the Afro-descendant population explains the lags we find in various areas, including their participation in international forums.
But the course is being corrected, he adds: "Fortunately, we are moving in the right direction and that is the most important thing. We were not recognised as subjects of international law, today we are, and the Permanent Forum is a reflection of progress in that direction".
Another tangible achievement is the celebration of the International Day for People of African Descent, established by the UN General Assembly in December 2020, which pays tribute to the contributions of the African diaspora. The day will be celebrated for the first time on 31 August 2021.
For this year's commemoration, Pastor Elias Murillo Martinez invited "civil society, States and all stakeholders to join the UN, the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent and the Intergovernmental Follow-up Group to Durban to move towards an international declaration on the rights of people of African descent".
Such a declaration is already in process and discussions will begin next October, so the expert is confident that it will be adopted before the end of the International Decade.
"I am persuaded, today more than ever, and this is my central message, that the fight against racism and racial discrimination, in particular as far as people of African descent are concerned, is an irreversible and multiracial endeavour," he concluded.