Poverty And Human Rights: Reflections On Racism and Discrimination

Currently, in both the international system and the inter-American system for the protection of human rights, there are instruments which emphasize the obligation of States to guarantee the observance of the rights of all human beings, without distinction as to race, gender, religion or political stance. However, although a considerable body of treaties, declarations and conventions exists to safeguard such equality in law, as yet there is no effective equality in practice. In our opinion, poverty is inseparably linked to human rights, acting as both cause and effect of human rights violations, and must be tackled if de facto equality is to be achieved. Excluded groups and persons will then be able to claim their rights from States and obtain prompt and appropriate responses at a reasonable cost, thereby ensuring that social well-being spreads to all parts of society.


While our subcontinent has moved on from the authoritarianism and flagrant assaults on life and liberty of the 1980s, and the majority of countries in the hemisphere now model their political relations on representative democracy and their economic thinking on market forces (the criterion for the allocation of resources), poverty and social exclusion are still widespread. This situation means that vast segments of the population experience a high degree of economic insecurity and despair about the future. Economic growth was 4.5 per cent on average during the period 2003-2006, showing an exceptional performance over the past 25 years, and the poverty rate, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, dipped slightly below the 1980 level for the first time, from 40.5 per cent of the population in that year to 39.8 per cent in 2005. However, the Commission states (Panorama Social de America Latina 2006) that the recent encouraging progress should not obscure the fact that poverty levels continue to be very high, and the region still faces enormous challenges. It adds that historically one of the chief features of Latin America has been the marked inequity of income distribution and its inflexibility to change, and that this inequity not only exceeds that of other regions, but also remained invariable throughout the 1990s and even worsened at the beginning of the current decade.1


By "social exclusion" we mean social discrimination processes engaged in by human groups on the grounds of sex, ethnicity, religion, political or ideological belief, social origin or socio-economic status and practices that fail to respect differences or value diversity. Excluded individuals and communities suffer distinct disadvantages by comparison with the rest of the population. First, they are deprived of the legitimate aspirations to which they are entitled, such as an adequate standard of living, labour force participation and social integration. Unable to attain these conditions, they are barred from the life style that a person expects to enjoy in a democratic society, including the exercise of human rights, whether civil and political or social, cultural and economic. For these reasons, such individuals and communities cannot be considered full members of society.


In Latin America and the Caribbean, racism and discrimination have historical, economic, social and cultural features which have kept specific groups, including indigenous populations, Afro-descendants and women, in a state of marginalization, exclusion and extreme poverty. In this sense, discrimination is a crime, not only because it conflicts with international law but also because it lays the ground for the violation of basic human rights.2 Moreover, when discrimination stems from prejudice based on race, ethnic identity, nationality or culture, it also affects collective subjects (populations and communities) that have rights as a group, deriving from their identity and culture, but do not always have the necessary legal or political status (a particular citizenship) to be able to defend themselves and claim rights. And the situation can be even worse when the population encountering discrimination is especially vulnerable, as in the case of the prison population.3


The majority of victims of racial discrimination in the region are communities (and members of communities) with specific identities based on such factors as ethnicity, culture, nationality, language and territory; the common factor is that they look, and are perceived as, different from the dominant identity understood as the national one.4 Those who persist in being different and demand to be treated as such are stigmatized in highly diverse ways, in which the attribution of race as a stereotype and of a set of prejudices that devalues them is still prevalent. In this situation, discrimination is based on denial of the right to be different and hence denial of the diversity (multi-ethnic, multicultural) of the society and State as a whole. Recently, Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that, together with poverty, discrimination constituted another recurring source of disqualification and deprivation of rights, freedom and dignity and that, despite the many efforts undertaken by the international community, racism and racist practices continued to spread in subtle, vicious and insidious ways and were internalized in everyday life through a variety of processes of socialization. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also referred to racial discrimination as a dangerous obstacle to national development.


However, some of the global advances made to date deserve to be highlighted. The Preparatory Conference of the Americas against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (Santiago, Chile, 2000) was significant in that the States of the region recognized that the identity of the Americas could not be separated from its multiracial, pluriethnic, multicultural, multilingual and pluralistic character, and that this social diversity provided an input to human coexistence and the building of mutually respected cultures and democratic political systems. It also recognized, for the first time, the existence of institutionalized discrimination and the possibility of reparations for suffering and injury caused by institutionalized discrimination. Similarly, the World Conference held in Durban, with its Declaration and Programme of Action, was instrumental in prevailing on a number of countries in the region to establish individual State bodies to implement its recommendations.5


In July 2006, the Regional Conference of the Americas against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was held in Brazil. This forum, organized with the support of the United Nations, in particular the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, brought together civil society, Governments and international institutions, with a view to promoting dialogue on advances and challenges in the implementation of the Programme of Action of the Durban Conference. The discussion focused on:

  • the need to give new momentum to the implementation of the commitments assumed by States under the declarations and programmes of action of the Santiago Conference (2000) and the Durban Conference (2001), it being agreed that their content represented a substantive advance in the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, especially in the recognition of the rights of victims of slavery and colonialism or victims of multiple or aggravated discrimination;
  • the need for the United Nations system to re-evaluate the agreements reached in Durban in a process similar to that held in the case of all other international conferences and summit meetings;
  • equal treatment on the part of the Organization of American States and the subregional multilateral bodies;
  • the need to develop an international equality index for the adjustment, standardization and regulation of the review and quantification of the current forms of discrimination and racism, together with the formulation of indicators and the implementation of specific measures for their modification;
  • the alignment of the Millennium Goals and the objectives established by the Regional Conference of the Americas and the Durban Conference, so that the Goals can be used as benchmarks to measure the progress achieved in the political, economic and social development of indigenous and Afro-descendant populations;
  • the conclusion and adoption of an inter-American convention against racism and discrimination; and
  • ways of increasing technical and financial support from Governments and international agencies for the implementation of programmes of action, the generation of indicators, the attainment of the MDGs, and the fostering and strengthening of State bodies for the promotion of ethnic and racial equity in the region.6


For the above reasons, it is evident that the eradication of discrimination requires, among the most important and urgent measures, the development of a State policy which both combats racism and racial discrimination and promotes diversity as a condition for development with equity and the effective exercise of human rights. This policy is of particular importance in the areas of human rights education, access to justice, political participation of the Afro-descendant population and the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. It is also necessary to develop a set of indicators for the objective assessment of the degree to which public policies perform this dual role, establish mechanisms for the monitoring of progress, and identify deficits where a greater effort is called for, as required in the work strategy of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, especially since the year 2000.7 The emphasis in this strategy is on the need to remedy the shortcomings of democracy in the region, without abandoning the concept of the comprehensiveness of basic rights and the need to employ a multidisciplinary approach. The application of the cross-cutting perspectives already mentioned signifies a grasp of reality in the region and the official adoption of a position which for a number of years now has permeated various initiatives within the Institute that have as their guiding principle building universality from specificity and promoting equality from diversity.
Notes 1 For its part, the Inter-American Development Bank states that the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have one of the highest inequity indices in the developing world. It is a region where income, resources and opportunities are systematically and disproportionately concentrated in one segment of the population, the elite of society. For a long time, the poverty and social degradation resulting from the inequity in the region were considered merely economic problems. Only in recent years have increased attention and analysis been focused on a complex series of social, economic and cultural practices leading to social exclusion: limited access to the benefits of development for certain populations on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender and/or physical capabilities (IDB, Sobre la exclusión social: declaración de la Misión, 2003).
2 The connection between racism and racial discrimination, understood as the deprivation of human rights for reasons of race or ethnicity (and even on other similar grounds) can be seen in the Yean and Bosico case, recently settled by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which deals with an aspect of the situation familiar to many Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic. The case shows how the deprivation of the right to a nationality, name and legal personality can subsequently affect girls as they try to gain access to the formal education system (see Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico v. The Dominican Republic, Series C No. 130, paras. 125-207).
3 The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has again had the opportunity to consider a situation in which the rights of persons who do not conform to the "dominant type" are restricted. Accordingly, the López Álvarez case expressly invokes the situation of detainees of Garifuna origin who have been denied the possibility of expressing themselves in their own language (see Inter-American Court of Human Rights, López Álvarez v. Honduras, Series C No. 141, paras. 160-174).
4 Consequently, it is stated that discrimination in our subregion constitutes a perverse practice or conduct based on stereotyping and prejudice outside the legislative framework and difficult to prosecute and eradicate from society. On the contrary, discrimination is closely correlated with inequality, which intensifies its effects and seems to suggest that it is a means of economic and political marginalization.
5 The bodies established included governmental committees for the development of public policies to combat racism and racial discrimination.
6 Additional information can be obtained from www.santiagomascinco.cl.
7 In another article, I intend to develop a set of suggestions on possible policy measures for adoption by Governments to promote multiculturalism in the thematic areas referred to, in the light of the experience acquired by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, which, in 27 years of work, especially since 2000, has consolidated a strategy of active promotion of human rights based on the prioritization of four thematic areas and three cross-cutting perspectives. The four thematic areas are: human rights education, justice and security, political involvement and effective exercise of economic, social and cultural rights; and the three cross-cutting perspectives are: gender equity, recognition and preservation of ethnic and cultural diversity, and the development of opportunities for the involvement of civil society and its interaction with the State.