PhD candidate Jake Okechukwu Effoduh reports on United Nations seminar at Osgoode marking International Decade for People of African Descent

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The following report was prepared by Jake Okechukwu Effoduh, PhD candidate at Osgoode:

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in cooperation with the Nathanson Centre for Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at Osgoode, organized a two-day expert seminar in February to mark the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent.

The seminar, which was part of worldwide efforts to effectively implement a program of activities adopted by a United Nations General Assembly resolution on December 1, 2014, examined the elements of “access to justice” in relation to the lived experiences of people of African descent, under the “Justice” theme of the Decade. It also raised awareness of the need to strengthen national, regional and international action and cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of people of African descent.

While the seminar took place in Canada and considered the Canadian context and its national legal framework, it also had an international focus. Experts from around the world attended and spoke at the event and thousands of people participated online through social media. Participants shared their stories and contributed to the conversation. It was a unique gathering of legal thinkers and legal practitioners, defence counsel, law students, academics, police services, judicial officials, Government representatives, and civil society activists to discuss these issues together, and provide a practical contribution to the International Decade for People of African Descent.

Delivering the opening address, Adam Abdelmoula, Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division of the OHCHR, recalled that the General Assembly stated that “people of African descent throughout the world, whether as descendants of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade or as more recent migrants, constitute some of the poorest and most marginalized groups.”

Studies and findings presented by experts at the seminar demonstrated that people of African descent still have limited access to quality education, health services, housing and social security. Osgoode Professor Francois Tanguay-Renaud, Director of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security, also indicated that the situation for people of African descent remains largely invisible: “There is insufficient recognition and respect given to the efforts of people of African descent to seek redress for their present condition.”

Gloria Nwabuogu of the OHCHR gave a presentation on key access to justice issues for people of African descent under international law, and how the relevant international human rights instruments guarantee the right to fair trial and equality before the law for all, including for people of African descent. She discussed the right to the presumption of innocence, the right to assistance of counsel and to an interpreter, the right to an independent and impartial tribunal, guarantees of justice, and all the rights under the international human rights framework.

Access to justice is a widely recognized right which has been elaborated in numerous international and regional instruments including the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

Obiora Okafor, Professor and York Research Chair in International and Transnational Legal Studies of Osgoode Hall Law School and Member of the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, called on states to commemorate the launch of the International Decade at the national level, develop national programs of action and activities for the full and effective implementation of the Decade; and to also organize national conferences and other events aimed at triggering an open debate and raising awareness on the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including government, civil society representatives and individuals or groups of individuals who are victims.

The seminar noted and discussed the broad commonality that exists in the experiences of persons of African descent around the world; the implications of history in the present for persons of African descent (the ways in which the past continues to condition their current experiences); the importance of moving the paradigm of access to justice from a focus on institutions to an assessment of how the lives and human rights of people who come into contact with the justice system are affected; the high financial and personal costs of interaction with the criminal justice system for persons of African descent who tend to suffer disproportionately from poverty and economic deprivation; the consequentially high importance of legal aid/assistance in facilitating access to justice in the particular cases of persons of African descent; the necessity of moving beyond (without abandoning) the “process” elements of access to justice to include a greater focus on how substantive justice can be attained for persons of African descent; the gender dimensions of the experiences of women of African descent in the criminal justice system; how the best interests of children of African descent and the rights of youth of that pedigree in the criminal justice system can be better attended to; the importance of generating and making more readily available more disaggregated data on the situation of persons for African descent; the importance of action (and ideas for action) from state and society alike; the necessity of engaging more deeply with intergovernmental and state level institutions given the existence of some space within them for progressive thought and action; and the consequent need for the greater sensitization of state and society alike in regard to the access to justice concerns of persons of African descent.

A primer of the expert presentations on access to justice will be published in the coming months as a contribution to the Decade.

The seminar was attended by several experts and stakeholders from within and outside Canada. Also in attendance were the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, OC, OOnt (Representative of Her Majesty The Queen); The Attorney General of Ontario, Honourable Minister Yasir Naqvi; the President & Vice-Chancellor of York University, Mamdouh Shoukri; the Dean Faculty of Law, Professor Lorne Sossin; the Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, R. Stacey LaForme; Expert of the United Nations Working Group for People of African Descent and Professor at the University Paris V-Descartes, Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France; Member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Verene Sheppard; a retired Justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, Honourable Selwyn Romilly; and several other dignitaries including the Member of Parliament for Whitby, the Honourable Celina Caesar-Chavannes.

Visit this website for event information regarding the International Decade for People of African Descent.