Become a Patron


Celina Romany and Katherine Culliton

Excerpted from:  The UN World Conference Against Racism: a Race-ethnic and Gender Perspective , 9 NO. 2 Human Rights Brief 14-29, 28 (Winter, 2002)


Latinas' focus at the conference was on improving the life conditions of some of the most marginalized populations in Latin America. Afro-descendent and indigenous women are among the most marginalized populations precisely because their experiences of discrimination have yet to be addressed appropriately in Latin America. In its transition to democracy, Latin America can no longer afford to postpone the realization of multicultural democracies that acknowledge diversity in their conception of participatory democracy. Even though women and racial and ethnic "minorities" led the fight against political oppression during the era of Latin American dictatorships, the human rights culture that emerged during the period of transition to democracy still clings to a narrow characterization of civil and political rights.


Historically, formal legal structures dealt only with violations of political and civil rights, and did not take into account the right to freedom from discrimination, much less address the socio-economic implications of violations of this fundamental right. Thus, the marginalization of Afro- descendent and indigenous women in Latin America has not been addressed adequately through the traditional human rights model. The right to be free from discrimination constitutes a centerpiece of a transformation agenda. The Inter-American system, which can provide significant leadership in this effort, must awaken and acknowledge this reality.DPA1 In Brazil, where the majority of the population is Afro-descendent, or in Central America, where much of the population is comprised of Indigenous Peoples, discrimination is an everyday reality, manifested in lack of access to civil-political and socio- economic rights. The effects are harsh, and include physical abuse, political exclusion, and socio-economic marginalization. The official denial of the existence of racism in countries like Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, has enabled governments and private parties to practice discrimination with impunity.


The lack of access to resources provided by the World Bank and the Inter- American Development Bank, and the lack of access to the Inter-American political and legal systems, has produced a set of policies skewed in favor of the elite white male. Recent reports by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Development Bank describe a systemic failure to include Afro-descendents, Indigenous Peoples, and women in the regional human rights and development systems, resulting in policies of de facto discrimination. The WCAR was the first time that Afro-descendent and indigenous Latin American women were able to voice their concerns about discrimination at a formal conference. Most of these women had never had the opportunity to speak to their governments about racism, much less influence policy and secure promises to design and enforce concrete measures to counter discrimination.


The new culture of human rights in Latin America and the adoption of human rights instruments at the constitutional level provide fertile ground for post- WCAR action. Every member of the GRULAC has already adopted the treaties necessary to redress all forms and intersections of discrimination in the region. The fact that such treaties are at the constitutional level means that, with creativity and political will, a new framework of rights can emerge. The adoption of human rights treaties as part of the constitutions of Latin American countries has enabled the rapid and successful development of women's human rights in the region.


The anti-discrimination treaty provisions from the Universal Declaration, the American Convention, the CEDAW, and the CERD are stronger than U.S. civil rights law, particularly in two respects: (1) effects of discrimination are sufficient proof of a legal violation, thus transcending the barriers that proof of intent usually present; and (2) the remedy must redress discrimination effectively, making available a broad spectrum of affirmative actions. The experience and expertise of the U.S. civil rights movement, however, could help inform the emerging Latin American civil rights movement. In fact, bridging North and South and sharing strengths may be key to the empowerment of both civil rights movements post-Durban.