The transatlantic slave trade and colonialism led to the scattering of people of African descent throughout the world. They continue to be marginalised and discriminated against to this day. In an exclusive interview, the United Nations President of the 69thGeneral Assembly, Uganda’s Sam Kutesa, explains why the global body is so concerned about discrimination against people of African descent and its recent decision to dedicate a whole decade to them. 2015-2024 is the International Decade for People of African Descent.
When we talk of people of African descent, who are we including in this definition?
Sam Kutesa: People of African descent are people who are scattered all over the world, who originally came from Africa or from the same African culture. They were dispersed largely by the slave trade or colonialism. These are people who are Africans but live mainly in the diaspora.
For example, we remember the Holocaust – it is not because it was not painful, it was very painful, and so was slavery
Why did the UN declare a whole decade in their honour?
The reason is that these people, being dispersed worldwide and having come as slaves, remain marginalised and racially discriminated against. The UN felt that in order to fight racism and sensitise the world against racial discrimination and marginalisation of people of African descent, we have to have this decade to popularise and find ways of ensuring that discrimination and racism are treated as evil. We believe that this decade should draw attention to these dangers. The UN views all of us as born equal.
The slave trade ended more than a century ago. Why we are still being reminded of such a painful past?
We are reminded of this painful past because its consequences are still with us. The consequences of discrimination and marginalisation that resulted from slavery are still rampant in the world. It is important that we work to eliminate them. We already have conventions that talk against them – the 2001 World Conference on Racism, for example, acknowledged these consequences. That is why we are now dedicating a whole decade to remember. And let me tell you that it is important to remember so as to make sure it is not repeated. For example, we remember the Holocaust – it is not because it was not painful, it was very painful, and so was slavery. We must remember slavery to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Of course, it is also important to know that slavery goes on in some parts of the world. If you don’t condemn what took place a hundred years ago, you won’t prepare yourself to tackle what is happening now. There is still trafficking of people; there is still slavery of black people in countries like Sudan.
There are arguments that the victims of slavery should be compensated just as we have seen compensation for Holocaust victims, which you just spoke about. What is the UN position?
There is no UN position; but there are national positions. Some countries’ jurisdictions admit that people should be paid reparations. But the UN has so far not considered a resolution on reparations. However, Article 4 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights talks about the right to an effective remedy by competent national tribunals for acts violating fundamental rights of people. You have to go to national jurisdictions to be able to claim reparations. Even that too depends; I know that there are some jurisdictions that have made the decision to claim compensation very difficult because the claims could be phenomenal. Our best bet may not be reparations but to ensure we end discrimination and marginalisation so that it doesn’t happen again. That’s the best bet we can look for as a remedy. Reparations will depend on the jurisdictions and legislation within countries.
Even in this day and age – you gave the example of Sudan – there are countries including Niger and Mauritania still practising slavery. What is the UN’s role in ending modern-day slavery?
We need to condemn them. We need to isolate them. We need to sanction them because these are against fundamental human rights. We should do that both at the level of the UN and regional organizations to make sure we end slavery because where there is slavery there is marginalisation, there is trafficking and there is under-paying of people.
Do you see this happening?
Yes, there are moves to isolate these countries and to name and shame them, to make sure this practice ends.
Studies have shown people of African descent have limited access to services like education and health. What is the best way to address these inequalities?
The most liberating tool in the world is education. If we can ensure they get access to education and skills, then they become employable and can live their lives more freely and also educate their children. We should urge all governments where people of African descent live to give them access to education because it is the biggest solution and cure.
How about a strict enforcement of some of the anti-discrimination laws enacted by national governments?
That is also very important. But what I am saying is yes, even when you are not discriminated against, if you don’t have the tools, if you don’t have the right skills, if you don’t have the education, you remain unemployable and you remain unable to access those rights that would otherwise be available. So the first fight for them is to get access to good education. If you want to liberate your body, you liberate your mind.
Ghana has adopted the “Right of Abode” law which gives people of African descent the right to live and work in Ghana. What’s your comment on this?
It should be emulated by other countries. Some of the people in the diaspora have acquired skills that could be useful to African countries. Some have resources to invest. I also think that it’s culturally and morally correct to give them an anchor to their cultural heritage. I don’t know if you remember the book, Roots, which traced the origins of Africans in the diaspora. The African Union has already passed a resolution that divided Africa into five regions, with the diaspora being the sixth.
One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous quotes is about his dream that one day his children would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. Will his dream be ever realised?
First of all, even now – even before the Decade of African Descent was declared – so many things are different from what they were in 1963 when Martin Luther King talked about his dream. Racism is on the decrease. Judging people by their merit is now more visible than ever before. Black people are occupying some of the highest offices in the world, including the presidency of America. That was something that Martin Luther King dreamt about. Of course, there remains segregation, there remains marginalisation, and as I say, we need to fight these things but there has been progress since 1963. The very fact that he had this dream in itself set a target for people to say it is possible. And so much has been realised since then. This Decade for the People of African Descent should be used to sensitise and engage in dialogue with other people until this dream is realised in full.