Towards an Afro-descendant Peoples’ Declaration of Rights: An Exercise of Autonomy and Self-Determination

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Born in the heat of the conquest and the slave trade, Black communities in the Americas have developed their own cultural practices that differentiate them from the rest of the population. Their music, their religiosity and their joy are the most representative characteristics of 170 million people who make up a transnational native community. After the advances in national jurisprudence, it is now the turn of international law to recognize the advancement of the collective rights of Afro-descendant peoples. The Black peoples of the world demand a declaration of rights on the recognition, justice and ethno-development of our Afro-descendant peoples.

Born in the heat of the conquest and the slave trade, Black communities in the Americas have developed their own cultural practices that differentiate them from the rest of the population. Their music, their religiosity and their joy are the most representative characteristics of 170 million people who make up a transnational native community. After the advances in national jurisprudence, it is now the turn of international law to recognize the advancement of the collective rights of Afro-descendant peoples. The Black peoples of the world demand a declaration of rights on the recognition, justice and ethno-development of our Afro-descendant peoples.

On August 31, 1920, Jamaican African-American activist Marcus Garvey proclaimed the International Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World in New York City. A feat that came three decades before the 1948 United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights. Today, within the framework of the International Decade for People of African Descent, a world declaration on the rights of Peoples of African descent is being prepared.

The project should be an evolution of international law. Therefore, it would have to be a Declaration of the Rights of Peoples of African Descent since a declaration of "Afro- descendants" constitutes a space that has already been won. Let us remember that, after the abolition of slavery in the second half of the 19th century, we descendants of Africans initiated a path to be recognized as persons with civil and political rights. At least, that was the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Today, in the 21st century, while it is essential for Afro-descendants to establish guarantees of subjective human rights (especially the right to equality and non-discrimination), it is also important to establish recognition as cultural citizens and as Afro-descendant Peoples, in the same dimension as Indigenous peoples.

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Rally in Harlem (New York) of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), led by Marcus Garvey in 1920. Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

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Rally in Harlem (New York) of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), led by Marcus Garvey in 1920. Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The Afro-descendants of the Americas and the reasons for their recognition as Peoples of African Descent

The proposal for a Declaration of the Rights of Peoples of African Descent has the following starting point: we are more than 170 million Afro-descendants in the Americas. This means that the Black people living in this continent are an original civilizational expression, a native transnational community and, finally, a People pre-existing the formation of the Latin American and Caribbean nation-states.

The Afro-descendant populations and communities, who came from the African slave trade in America, constitute a new civilization, with a singular character, and whose characteristics are the product of a process of deconstruction and reconstruction of the civilizational ethos of the African nations. We, Afro-descendants, were enslaved, converted into Blacks and then (through complex processes of acculturation, reculturation and interculturation) we developed authentic mental creations that are unique and proper to the Americas.

The Garifuna culture is the most vivid expression of our originality as an ethnic people and culturally differentiated from others. The Garifuna people is an ancestral culture that achieved the synthesis of African, Arawak and Carib expressions.

The Garifuna culture is the most vivid expression of our originality as an ethnic people and culturally differentiated from others.

The clearest evidence that the Afro-descendants of the Americas are an original People is based on the creations of our immaterial and material heritage that does not exist in other latitudes of the planet. Our religious, magical, medical, poetic, literary, musical, linguistic, dance, funerary and symbolic expressions prove it.

For example, the Garifuna culture is the most vivid expression of our originality as an ethnic people and culturally differentiated from others. The Garifuna people, to which our leader Celeo Álvarez Cacildo belonged, is an ancestral culture that achieved the synthesis of African, Arawak and Carib expressions. The Garifuna are Afro descendants with their own language, religious belief system and kinship structure. In addition to their unique culinary practices, they still preserve their ancestral farming and fishing techniques.

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In the Caribbean Sea, the Garifuna culture stands out for the recognition of its music and dances. Photo: Desde Nicaragua

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In the Caribbean Sea, the Garifuna culture stands out for the recognition of its music and dances. Photo: Desde Nicaragua

A cultural identity that spans the Americas

In the Caribbean Sea region, dozens of Afro-descendant peoples coexist with cultural configurations influenced by their processes of enslavement and colonization. Among the peoples with great African preservation are the Palenque of San Basilio in Colombia, the Quilombola communities of Brazil, the Maroons of Suriname and the Guyanas, where the legendary Saramakas are found. The Raizales of the islands of San Andres and Providencia in Colombia and the English Blacks of the Bay Islands in Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica also stand out.

In the Caribbean, Afro-descendant peoples have developed a rhythmic, poetic and literary sense of great African heritage. We find their musical fusions such as Rhythm and Blues, Calypso and Reggae. The latter has been a popular genre that went around the world and had Bob Marley as its main protagonist. In the same vein, there are also salsa, rumba, son, merengue, chachachá, bomba, plena and bachata.

Brazil has an incomparable Afro-descendant culture: its religions of African origin, its food, music, dances and the cult of joy remind us that the Afro-descendants of the Americas are an entire civilization born in the slave-owning modernity.

Brazil has an incomparable Afro-descendant culture that remind us that the Afro-descendants of the Americas are an entire civilization born in the slave-owning modernity.

At the same level, African American religiosity stands out, starting with Rastafarism and Cuban religiosity with the Rule of Palo Monte, the Rule of Ocha and the secret Society of the Abakúa. In Haiti, a country with a cultural explosion of Afro-descendant origins, we have Haitian Creole as the national language and Voodoo as the state religion. In the South American Pacific, popular music and religiosity are worth mentioning: the ritual of death in the Colombian region of Chocó; the festivities of saints and virgins in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Pacific; the music and dances of Currulao, Marimba, bullerengue and champeta in Colombia; and the music and dance of Bomba and Bandamocha in the Ecuadorian Chota Valley. Finally, further south, we find the sounds of the Afro-Peruvian cajón, the Afro- Bolivian saya and the drums of the Uruguayan candombe.

In closing, it is necessary to dedicate a section to the magical realism of Brazil, where 52 percent of its population is descended from African slaves. This Latin American giant has an incomparable Afro-descendant culture: its religions of African origin, its food, music, dances and the cult of joy remind us that the Afro-descendants of the Americas are an entire civilization born in the slave-owning modernity. This history demands recognition as a collective cultural identity, as the original people of the Americas or, better said in the plural: as Peoples. Our draft Declaration of Afro-descendant Rights cannot ignore this reality.

To be recognized as Afro-descendent Peoples: the demand of the social movement

In 2012, Afro-Costa Rican intellectual Quince Duncan argued that the ascription of People goes beyond race and ethnicity, since Afro-descendant culture encompasses a pan-ethnicity, that is, a transnational community. Therefore, the Afro-descendants of the Americas are a People with “cultural elements that make up a civilization”: a common territorial origin, a shared spiritual matrix, a system of total miscegenation, the experience of slavery, discrimination by doctrinal racism and historical forms of resistance.

The Afro-descendants' status as a People could be interpreted as a crucial point of the demands of their social movement. Basically, they are considered a People in the sense established by Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labor Organization (ILO) of 1989. The argument rests on the fact that the Afro-descendants of the Americas, like the Indigenous Peoples, meet the requirements established in Articles 1 and 2 for recognition as a People: they possess social, cultural and economic conditions that distinguish them; they are governed by their own customs; they are descended from populations that inhabited the region during the conquest; and they are aware of their common identity.

The most immediate precedent in the United Nations for the recognition of Afro- descendants as a People can be found in The Declaration of the Regional Conference of Santiago in 2000, which was preparatory to the Third World Conference Against Racism held in Durban in 2001. The final document considered the concept of "Peoples of African descent", which opened a legal status with a view to claiming their collective human rights.

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San Basilio del Palenque was the first town of free Africans in Colombia. Its dances and culture are today an attraction for cultural tourism. Photo: Milena Conrado

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San Basilio del Palenque was the first town of free Africans in Colombia. Its dances and culture are today an attraction for cultural tourism. Photo: Milena Conrado

Recognition is making progress in the Americas

One aspect for the consideration of Afro-descendants as a People is the jurisprudence of each country. In Colombia, the Constitutional Reform of 1991 allowed Afro-descendants to be recognized as Black communities with rights over the ancestral territory of the forests of the Pacific region. Later, the new constitutions of the Republic of Ecuador and the Plurinational State of Bolivia gave Afro-descendants the status of People and thus recognized their collective rights over their lands, identity and political participation.

In recent years, national jurisprudence continued to make progress throughout Latin America. In 2019, the Constitution of Mexico was amended to recognize the status of Peoples to Afro-Mexicans, while Chile passed a law recognizing the Afro-descendants of the Arica region as a Tribal People. Finally, in 2022, the Government of Costa Rica issued a decree recognizing Afro-Costa Ricans as a Tribal People.

We are facing a new generation of rights and therefore we request a draft declaration that represents the aspirations of Afro-descendant Peoples and jurisprudence.

We are facing a new generation of rights and therefore we request a draft declaration that represents the aspirations of Afro-descendant Peoples and jurisprudence.

The context shows that human rights are progressing and evolving and, therefore, international law cannot ignore the realities of the human populations. We are facing a new generation of rights and therefore we request a draft declaration that represents the aspirations of Afro-descendant Peoples and jurisprudence. Let us recall that the Inter- American Court of Human Rights and the International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) had already pronounced that Afro-descendants represent a collectivity subject to rights, or Tribal People, ethnic community or national minority; and consequently, they are subjects of collective rights.

In addition, the bases that could support a declaration of the rights of People of African descent have been established in CERD Recommendation 34 (2011). This instrument takes the concept of People of African descent from the Durban Declaration and Program of Action to establish that, either individually or as a community, people of African descent are entitled to exercise a set of four blocks of rights and specific measures without discrimination.

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Keti Koti celebration in Paramaribo. Every July 1st, Afro-descendants commemorate the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles in 1863. Photo: Iwan Brave

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Keti Koti celebration in Paramaribo. Every July 1st, Afro-descendants commemorate the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles in 1863. Photo: Iwan Brave

Towards the recognition and justice of Afro-descendant Peoples

In summary, we in the Americas request that the draft Declaration of the Rights of Afro- descendant Peoples take up again the meaning proposed by Marcus Garvey in 1920: a declaration of the rights of the Black Peoples of the world. Consequently, in line with the proposal of Pastor Murillo, independent expert of the Permanent Forum on Afro- descendants, we consider it necessary to guarantee the collective rights linked to the recognition, justice and ethno-development of Afro-descendant communities.

I. Rights for Recognition

  • The right to recognition as Afro-descendant Peoples for all persons and communities that so identify themselves, are self-determined and, consequently, are holders of collective rights.
  • The right to recognition and autonomy of their ancestral territories.
  • The right to ownership and the right to the use, conservation and protection of lands traditionally occupied and their ways of life and culture are linked to the use of these lands and natural resources.
  • The right to cultural identity and to maintain, safeguard and promote their forms of organization, culture, languages and religious expressions.
  • The right to the protection of traditional knowledge and their cultural and artistic heritage.
  • The right to decide on traditional knowledge, innovations and practices associated with genetic resources.
  • The right to prior consultation when decisions are made that may affect their rights, in accordance with international standards.

II. Rights for Justice

  • The right to equality and non-discrimination of Afro-descendants before the institutions of justice and their courts.
  • The right to reparations for being victims of the slave trade and for having been exploited to generate wealth for the strengthening of capitalism.
  • The right to specific measures or affirmative action for equal access to economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.
  • The right to specific measures to combat racial profiling by the police.
  • The right to prevent and combat algorithmic bias and discrimination in artificial intelligence.
  • The right to benefit from underwater cultural heritage and treasures transported by slave traders' galleons during the slave trade.

III. Rights of Ethno-development Afro-descendant Communities

  • The right to drinking water, electricity, sewage, Internet, gas, heating, road infrastructure, health and education services in communities.
  • The right to political participation, recognizing the legal status of an electoral nature and direct representation quotas in parliaments.
  • The right to economic benefits for forest use, conservation, and practices that mitigate climate change.
  • The right of Afro-descendant women to equal work and equal pay.
  • The right to access information technologies and benefit from the scientific advances of humanity.
  • The right to access to higher education through specific measures that include access for young people, the creation of their own institutions, and the dissemination of their cultural memory and historical heritage.