Interview with Margarette Macaulay: Rapporteur on the Rights of Afro-descendants

Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay is Rapporteur on the Rights of Afro-descendants at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  She was formerly a Judge at the Inter-American Court (2007-2012.) As one of Race and Equality’s closest allies, she has met with Afro-descendant groups across the region and advocated in favor of the Inter-American Convention Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance, which came into force last month for Costa Rica and Uruguay. 

In your opinion, why is the Convention coming into force at this specific point in time? 

This is an ideal time for it to come into force because the issue of racial discrimination is extremely alive in the region. Racism and racial discrimination have always existed but they are advancing at a greater pace rather than regressing. Since President Trump came to power there has been a galloping of hate speech and violence. Those who were quiet about their inherent racism and prejudice are now very open about it. 

Costa Rica and Uruguay are the first to ratify. Why do you think that is? 

Thank God for Costa Rica and Uruguay! If you look at their record, both countries tend to sign human rights instruments quite early. Also they most likely feel comfortable about moving forward and assisting in the recognition and advancement of Afro-descendants in the region. As the President of Costa Rica said at the Convention ratification ceremony, Afro-descendants played a great role in the development of the country through their sweat, their suffering, their blood and their death whilst they were under slavery. So it was about time this was recognized. 

The UN Convention came into force in 1969. Why has Latin America and the Caribbean dragged its feet? 

Because it was convenient. It is inconvenient for a State to say they haven’t given any recognition to the civic, social and political rights of Afro-descendants. It is more comfortable for the States to remain silent. But as Afro-descendants start realizing their rights, States have to recognize that they are here and they have to do something.  

Why is this Convention significant? Is the UN Convention not sufficient? 

The Inter-American Convention is very significant and absolutely necessary for the region. Clearly the UN Convention has not advanced the rights of Afro-descendants because the States are not implementing its provisions. It is also necessary for us to update the UN definition of racism and racial discrimination. 

This Convention is clearly a product of its time. Its language is very contemporary… 

The language used here is purposeful. Lost of people who are racist will deny it because they do not understand that they are in fact racist. The language used here is so clear. This is how all legal instruments dealing with rights or provisions should be written so that anyone who is literate can understand it. And the definitions have evolved over the years. People in the region often tell me ‘In this country we are invisible. We do not exist. We have nothing. We cannot do anything.’ 

What form does racial discrimination take in the region? 

It is present in education, health services, religion, in the lack of job opportunities, wage standards… Afro-descendants also suffer more violence in all its forms, including hate speech. In every way they are the lowest in the rank.  

The Convention even mentions cloning. Is that a real threat to Afrodescendants? 

Of course. The person lowest on the totem pole is most likely to be used. It is a matter of great concern. 

How do you feel personally about this Convention coming into force? What has been your own role with regards to developing this instrument? 

I am actually not Afro-descendant, I am African. I was born in West Africa. My husband and I emigrated to Jamaica from Sierra Leone. But I feel extremely committed to this cause. I have been working on women and children’s rights for over 40 years and I am sad that I did not work enough on this. I would love to see an advancement in the enjoyment of Afro-descendant rights before my service as Commissioner and Rapporteur comes to an end. I feel very strongly about it. My mother was a black African and I owe it to her. 

Is the ratification of the Convention likely to affect the type of cases brought to the IACHR? 

I hope it brings some cases. It is a means for States to solve problems and move towards respecting rights and dignity of Afro-descendants within their borders. But I will address your question in another way. My fear is that States will not ratify this too quickly. But I will try my darnedest because I think the States should have gotten over their reluctance to admit that there are people they are ignoring. The best way to deal with a problem like that is admit it and move on. But some States might also be afraid that a great number of petitions might flow from ratifying the Convention. But if you look at history, it took a long while for people to start bringing petitions to the system. If the States are afraid of petitions and don’t ratify for that reason, I think they would be wrong. That would be an excuse. 

What other challenges lay ahead? 

I’m interested to see how the States interpret the Committee that needs to be set up according to the Convention. Will they nominate someone independent and committed to the purpose of the Convention or a functionary?

Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention establish that political and legal systems must reflect the diversity of society and that access to justice must be equal. Can these ideals really be met here in the US and elsewhere? 

I don’t think they have been met in the US. How many indigenous people are there in Congress? How many blacks, Latinos? A small number. The United States have a more mixed face than elsewhere in the region but they are still progressing. Bolivia is an example of a largely indigenous political representation. Brazil was for a little bit. But let’s not forget it is not just about race. Diversity is race and gender. We have to make up a diverse face of the political institutions. I hope I’ll be alive when this happens in every country in the region. It is going to take a long while. That is why the Inter-American Convention against Racism and the Inter-American Convention against all forms of Discrimination are very important for the region.  

What are your recommendations for civil society? 

You must lobby your states to ratify the Convention against Racism as well as the one on Discrimination, which has no ratifications yet. Everybody is affected by discrimination in region one way or the other, leaving aside race and ethnicity, on the basis of your class, lower form of education… This is what will protect against general and multiple forms of discrimination every day. But racism has to stop first. 

Check out the expert discussion on the Inter-American Convention against Racism held at the IACHR. 

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