A few weeks ago, during the 66th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the issues of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance were extensively explored and debated. Within the context of these debates, raising the profile of the peoples of African descent and their historical and current struggles was particularly relevant.
Of course, this was not the first time that the issue had been discussed within the United Nations. A few years ago, during the World Conference against Racism held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, a programme of action was agreed upon by a large number of nations. Among the items included in the declaration of Durban was the need to raise the profile of people of African descent, and the fight for their rights, in Africa and the Diaspora.
As a result of the Durban Conference, and other subsequent events, the UN dedicated the year 2011 to the people of African descent. To the dismay of many sceptics, this proclamation did not fall on deaf ears. Several activities were organized throughout the year to celebrate African cultures, and to highlight the importance of their history and the urgency of their plights today.
Of these events, two in particular are worth mentioning. In August, the Afro XXI Ibero-American encounter of Afro-descendants was held in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Among the issues debated by the participants were those of citizenship and rights of Afro-descendant peoples in Ibero-America. Later in the year, in December, the First World Summit of Afro-Descendants took place in La Ceiba, Honduras. Although touching on similar topics, this time the participants went a step further and agreed to demand from the UN the creation of a development fund to fight poverty and protect the rights of people of African descent.
Now, as a result of the debates held at these summits, the UN General Assembly has recommended to the working group that has dedicated much of its time over the past years to find effective ways of fighting racism and xenophobia, to work on the development of a plan of action, with a view to proclaiming the decade starting in 2013, as the Decade for People of African Descent.
The importance of this declaration is not lost to those who have been fighting for the recognition of the contributions of Africans and peoples of African descent to the world. Professor Paul Lovejoy, Director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global migrations of African peoples at York University, in Canada, stated that now more than ever before it is necessary to "break the dangerous silence about the past so that all people can achieve due recognition and thereby we can sustain a world based on social justice".
So, now that the challenge has been made, what can we expect from this new UN proclamation?
If we are to consider what was attained in 2011 as guidance, the omens are very good. It is, in fact, the success of 2011 as a year for people of African descent which has, to a large extent, set up the dedication of the next ten years to the same cause.
Starting with the First African Diaspora Summit to be held in South Africa in May this year, there is an opportunity to bring up, in a sustained and consistent manner the accomplishments of the Africans and their descendants, and the problems they face across the globe as well. This summit, has already met a major milestone by embracing the African Union's decision to declare the Diaspora the "sixth region" of Africa, recognizing in this way the history and contribution of the millions of Africans who for centuries were taken across vast geographical areas and away from their homelands, mostly to work as slaves.
Professor Lovejoy, who has called our attention to the need for understanding the history of people of African descent, has also asserted, that this understanding is important for "all peoples of what ever background, because the forced migration of Africans during 400 years of slavery was central to the development of the modern world."
Of course, one can only speculate, but if a single year was enough to raise the profile of the history, contributions to the modern world, and struggles against various sorts of oppression of people of African descent, an entire decade could be crucial to keep these issues in the spotlight for a much longer time.
The General Assembly of the UN has provided Africans from Africa and from the Diaspora with a stage to make their voices heard; now the opportunity needs to be taken.