Carlos Quesada and Dominic Procopio of the Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights traveled to Bogota, Colombia during the second week of November in order to meet with our Colombian partners. While in Bogota we had the pleasure of speaking with Pastor Elías Murillo Martínez, Independent Expert on the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) for the last eight years.
As the first year of the the UN-declared International Decade for the People of African Descent (2015-2025) comes to a close, the Institute wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to speak with the person responsible for launching this important initiative. During the Decade it is hoped that national governments will dedicate special attention to the human rights of Afro-descendant communities. Its three primary courses of action will address the issues of Recognition, Justice and Development.
Considering that the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) will be celebrated on December 21, 2015, we at the Institute felt it was an opportune time to highlight the Committee’s important work.
In preparation for upcoming research work on the impact of the Convention and the Committee in Latin America, we interviewed Mr. Murillo about his work with CERD in general, CERD’s work in Latin America more specifically, and the relationship of the Committee with governments and civil society in the region.
Could you tell us a little about your educational background and your work before you became an Independent Expert of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination?
I am an attorney specializing in environmental rights and the analysis of social problems with a human rights focus. I became involved at a very young age in the fight against racism and racial discrimination, perhaps inspired by the particular situation of my hometown, Andagoya [Chocó, Colombia]. In Andagoya there were schools for whites and schools for blacks, public pools for whites and pools for blacks. It was in this context that I grew up.
Later, after having finished law school, I had the opportunity to take part in the drafting of Law 70 in 1993, the law establishing the rights of black communities, as well as to contribute in other areas related to the Afro-Colombian population as Director of Black Community Affairs in the Colombian Interior Ministry, where I was in charge of public policy toward Afro-Colombians.
I was elected to CERD for the period between 2008-2012, reelected for 2012-2016, and now recently elected for a third term, from 2016-2020.
In your capacity as as CERD Independent Expert you have worked as Rapporteur for several countries. For which countries have you served as Rapporteur?
I have been Rapporteur for Suriname, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Costa Rica, amongst others.
Speaking of the work of the Committee. From your point of view, what are some of the greatest challenges facing the Committee in its work against racial discrimination?
Sadly, the phenomena of racism and racial discrimination are universal, latent and ongoing in all parts of the world. And while it may take different forms or shapes in one country or the other, in the end it remains racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia or other connected forms of intolerance.
At this time at the global level, I would say that there are two or three phenomena that are especially worrying to the international community and, in particular, to the Committee. One involves the political use of xenophobia, particularly by parties of the extreme right that use hate and the rejection of foreigners as a weapon to gain political advantages in their respective countries. This is a highly dangerous situation that requires our full energy to combat. Another area is the use of racial profiling in the United States and in Latin America. Without a doubt this is an especially worrisome situation, not only for the US but for the entirety of the international community. With regard to the Committee, we have been able to verify the phenomenon in the complaints we have received of the practice.
And of course the problems of structural racism and racial discrimination faced by the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations of the Americas always take a central place in the work of the Committee, as does the situation of the Roma people in Europe.
Continuing on the topic of racial profiling, which is a serious problem in many countries in Latin America, what are the Committee’s thoughts on this situation in the region, and what work is the Committee doing on racial profiling.
The most powerful complaints currently come from Panama. The United Nations Working Group of Experts on Persons of African Descent on its most recent visit in locu to Panama was able to verify and discuss this practice. And it is not without reason that the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights in Panama—the regional office for Panama and Central America—has created a guide for documenting racial profiling occurrences. It is an interesting tool that I think will have an important use.
In Brazil, on the other hand, one must take into account the widespread violence affecting the population, in particular the youth. It is known that 77 of every 100 murders of young people in Brazil are committed against Afro-descendant youth. This is an indicator of the structural racial discrimination that affects all countries in Latin America.
In Colombia the topic has recently emerged after a surprised passerby caught the forceful and emblematic reaction by an Afro-Colombian citizen, Mr. Carlos Angulo, who, in the middle of the street, became upset at being a victim of racial profiling.
You have mentioned some of the major obstacles faced by the Committee in its work against racism and racial discrimination. Can you tell us some of the Committee’s recent achievements?
I believe that the Committee has been a pioneer in the process of getting the issue of Afro-descendants on the agendas of national governments and on the global agenda, especially through the Committee’s periodic systematic requirements for the States parties and by the support the Committee has shown other multilateral bodies that work on Afro-descendant issues. The work of the Committee has meant that Afro-descendants increasingly occupy a more prominent place in the national political agendas throughout the region, as well as in the agendas of the UN, the Organization of the American States (OAS), and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
It was in the Committee that I had the opportunity to develop the idea for the International Decade of People of African Descent, and idea that came about after the declaration of the International Year of People of African Descent (2011) that was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly. The International Decade was the outcome of a joint effort by many countries, including South Africa, Brazil and Colombia, to name only a few. And it was in the Committee that I was able to to first propose the initiative and where I received such important support.
It’s also important to mention the Committee’s work with the Early Warning and Urgent Action mechanisms. Monitoring these situations helps to anticipate situations that could devolve into much worse matters. We should remember that during the 90s, for example, the majority of armed conflicts in the world had their origins in religious or ethnic conflicts or in the confluence of of religious and ethnic issues.
You mentioned the International Decade for People of African Descent. Can you tell us a bit more about what the Committee has planned for the Decade?
Through its Action Plan for the Afro-descendant Decade the Committee has drawn up a general declaration on racial discrimination against Afro-descendants that recommended a host of actions. For example, it invites the specialized organizations of the UN and other institutions such as the World Bank to incorporate a differentiated approach toward Afro-descendant issues in their annual reports.
Specific objectives of the Decade include promoting the respect, protection and the fulfillment of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Afro-descendants, as well as promoting greater understanding and respect for diversity, the cultural heritage of Afro-descendants and their contributions to the development of the societies of which they are a part. Other objectives include strengthening national, regional and international legal frameworks to conform to the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in order to insure their full and effective application.
In regards to activities programmed throughout the Decade, the Committee will work with the States parties so that they can adopt concrete measures by approving and effectively applying national and international legal frameworks as well as developing policies and programs to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and connected forms of intolerance, with a special emphasis in the areas of recognition, justice, development and aggravated forms of discrimination.
You mentioned some of the different actions the Committee promotes within other UN institutions. Can you tell us a little about the Committee’s work with civil society and where civil society organizations fit into the work of the Committee?
It is a very important role. It is part of the Committee’s work to designate times for official dialogue with civil society before the examination of the State party. This permits the Committee members and the Committee as a whole to gain another perspective on the report submitted by the State party and the studies conducted by the Committee members themselves. More and more we are seeing a larger presence and greater participation by Afro-descendant organizations, and this has allowed the Committee to have a much more balanced understanding of the reality of racism and racial discrimination in the countries we monitor.
In what ways could civil society strengthen its work with CERD? How can we increase our participation in the Committee’s work?
There are many ways! The Committee will always welcome a broader and more active roll for civil society in its different activities. Greater participation is vital and would always be welcomed, because in in order to combat racism and racial discrimination social mobilization is needed, and this depends on civil society.
The Committee also welcomes civil society’s participation through the production of alternative reports. It is the Committee’s hope that these reports continue to become more focused and systematic. I personally value the work of international human rights organizations that have increasingly leant their support to Afro-descendant organizations in preparing alternative reports and traveling to Geneva for the periodic examinations of their respective countries.
Another important contribution of civil society is in cases of individual complaints which serve to activate Early Warning and Urgent Action mechanisms.
In all of these ways civil society helps the Committee to be vigilant, active and productive in making sure the Committee’s recommendations are carried out.
Conversely, could you give us your perspective on the relationship between the Committee and the governments in Latin America?
The Committee maintains a positive and constructive relationship with the States parties. And for their part, the States parties come to the Committee in good faith, with of course some exceptions. Nevertheless, the Committee is not a just a cheerleading committee. It’s a committee that examines in depth the country’s situation, and of course this can cause some tension.
For example, we examined Costa Rica in August of 2015, stemming from Costa Rican civil society’s demand that a book called Cocorí, which presents a story of a black boy who is compared to a monkey, be removed from the public school curriculum, which of course was a completely reasonable demand. Before that we had examined and recommended the removal from Peruvian television the program “La Paisana Jacinta,” which presented a denigrating and inequitable picture of the indigenous community of Peru. Obviously these matters create tensions within the country which are transferred to the examinations done by the Committee. The Committee’s examination of the Dominican Republic was also very complicated, due to the situation of statelessness faced by over 200 thousand people of Haitian descent.
In closing, let’s talk about what the future brings. What does CERD have planned for 2016?
On November 26th, during the Committee’s sessions we plan to hold a number of fora and activities to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and we are hoping that this gives a renewed push to the Committee’s work against racism and racial discrimination. It is worth remembering that the Convention was adopted in 1965, during a time when the fight against colonialism, apartheid and racial segregation was at its peak.
In regards to the International Decade on the People of African Descent, we will work with both civil society and the States parties to fulfill the Plan of Action and Program of Activities that we have prepared.
To see the video celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Convention, click on the link below