Reparations on the UN Agenda

Human rights are supposed to ensure freedom and equal rights for everyone. Yet, the universal human rights regime still has to address many global inequalities.

Michael McEachrane, Visiting researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, recently participated in two UN events concerning respectively the rights of people of African descent and reparations for the consequences of colonialism. This is a blog post about his experiences:

As Samuel Moyn points out in his latest book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, the failure to address issues of global justice and inequities is a lacuna in the universal human rights regime.

Already the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”. Still, we have yet to see UN human rights conventions and mechanisms dedicated to international inequities.

What we have instead is a universal human rights regime inscribed in what Makau Mutua aptly calls a “savage, victim, savior” narrative. Developing states are like savages that victimize their populations and need to be saved by developed states, development aid, the UN and universal human rights.

There is nothing in this narrative of how developed countries—for example, in their patterns of production, profit making and consumption—may serve to undermine the equal enjoyment of dignity and rights in developing countries. Or how global inequities may have historical roots that never have been properly addressed.

The increasing calls for reparations for enslavement, native genocide and systemic racial discrimination (apartheid) may change this.

Last month I attended two UN events that addressed this topic.

Halt and Reverse Structural Discrimination

On May 10, a consultation for a new UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent was held in Geneva. This new Forum is a result of the UN International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024, which in turn is the result the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) of the 2001 World Conference against Racism in South Africa.

The DDPA affirms that European colonialism established systemic racial discrimination and inequities. It calls on states to halt and reverse structural racial discrimination and inequities in the present that are continuations of structural racial discrimination and inequities in the past.

The preamble of the General Assembly resolution behind the new Permanent Forum calls on States to “honour the memory of victims of the historical injustices of slavery, the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and apartheid.” It also welcomes “the call upon all the former colonial Powers for reparations (…) to redress the historical injustices of slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade.”

Except for Russia, which drafted the resolution together with Egypt—the entire Global North either voted against it or abstained from voting. An overwhelming majority of 128 countries of the Global South voted for it.

Not surprisingly, reparations for enslavement and apartheid was put forth during the May 10 consultation as a key theme for the new Forum. I co-drafted a civil society proposal for the new Forum signed by 118 civil society organizations around the world. Of course, we mentioned that the new Forum should offer recommendations on the call for reparations for colonialism, enslavement, the transatlantic slave trade and other relevant crimes against humanity.

The exact mandate and modalities of the new Forum will be decided by member states on June 18.

Report Coming on Reparations to the General Assembly

The UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achiume, held a workshop on reparations in New York City on 29 May. I was among the invited experts. The workshop was meant to aid the drafting of a forthcoming report on reparations to the General Assembly.

It is left to be seen if reparations for the systemic injustices of colonialism will promote the equal enjoyment of human dignity and rights at the international level—which already is established by the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other instruments at the national levels.

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