Winnie Byanyima: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 17 June 2022
On May 14, 2022, in Buffalo, New York, a white supremacist livestreamed his terrorist attack against black people at a local supermarket killing ten, injuring three others, yelling racial slurs during the incident. 11 of the victims were black.
The killer endorsed the far-right “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. These killings shocked the world and resonated within the glass walls of the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Following the incident in Buffalo, the United Nations Secretary-General condemned in the strongest terms racism in all its forms and discrimination. Mr. António Guterres stated that “we must all work together towards building more peaceful and inclusive societies”.
We wholeheartedly support our Secretary-General, a leader whose deep commitment to a better world is unquestionable and echo his condemnation of the mass shooting in Buffalo.
Our thoughts are with the families of the victims and the community.
We strongly condemn this heinous crime and senseless act motivated by hatred and extremism and committed against people of African descent. We must however admit that we have been here before. The question is, when is enough, enough?
Haven’t we had enough of inequality and discrimination? Enough of structural racism and systematic injustice?
We have met! There were the two World Conferences, to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, held in Geneva in 1978 and 1983. It’s been almost 30 years since the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna calling for the speedy and comprehensive elimination of all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. 20 years have gone by since the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, was held in Durban, South Africa.
We have noted! Racism is a precursor for violent atrocities. Several United Nations Conventions note the linkages, including the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. United Nations Member States have made a commitment to “Advancing national and international efforts to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, as well as their incitement.”
Despite all these efforts, Africans and Afro-decedents from Buffalo to Brazil continue to be victims of racial injustice. Addressing racism must be a matter of urgent priority.
On 25 May 2020, exactly two years ago, George Floyd, an African American man was brutally murdered in broad daylight in Minnesota. Derek Chauvin, a white American police officer was later convicted for murdering Floyd.
About a month after the killing of George Floyd, more than 20 United Nations senior officials of African descent penned an Op-Ed to express our outrage at the injustice of racism. We wrote that “racism continues to be pervasive in our Host Country and across the world.” Committed to do more, we stated that we “owe it to George Floyd and to all victims of racial discrimination and police brutality to dismantle racism in institutions”.
While denouncing racism in the world, we are aware that systemic racism exists even in the United Nations system, negatively impacting black, brown and other persons of color, particularly Africans and Afro descendants. The United Nations was created over 75 years ago when many nations were still ruled by colonial “masters” and the asymmetries of power were accepted. At the same time, the foundation of the United Nations is the conviction that all human beings are equal and entitled to live without fear of persecution.
That is why in the 2020 Op-Ed, the Senior Officials of African Descent called for an urgent and honest assessment of racism within our institution. Translated into about 20 languages covering all continents, the Op-Ed started an important conversation within the United Nations.
Subsequently, we created the United Nations Senior Officials of African Descent Group, also known as UNSAG. UNSAG assembles dozens of international civil servants who, inspired by the values and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, stand together to challenge racism within the UN and in the world.
Soon after, the Secretary-General established a Task Force on Addressing Racism and Promoting Dignity for All. He launched an organization-wide dialogue on racism in our workplace in October 2020. The Task Force delivered a Strategic Action Plan on racial discrimination. Launching the Plan, the Secretary-General promised to establish a Steering Group to oversee implementation and to appoint a Special Adviser to support him in this important work. UNSAG salutes the Secretary- General for the courageous decisions he has taken to end racism within the UN and looks forward to the fulfillment of these promises.
In the two years that have passed since the killing of George Floyd and before the mass killings in Buffalo, many other victims of racism fell under the violence of haters around the world. Keeping silent now is not an option.
UNSAG says that silence is complicity. Ending structural and systemic racism is everyone’s business, everyone must play their part, in all countries and in every society. UNSAG calls on leaders of political entities, the business sector, inter-governmental and civil society organizations and citizens in their communities to prioritize ending racial injustice.
These are difficult times. The world is faced with multiple crises. As Secretary-General Guterres leads the world to avert a climate crisis, spur economic recovery from Covid 19, end wars and maintain peace, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, UNSAG takes the opportunity to remind him that none of these objectives can be achieved without addressing multiple inequalities that intersect and reinforce each other across generations – and these include racial inequalities. When the UN General Assembly declared 2015–2024 to be the International Decade for People of African Descent, the family of nations recognized that “people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected”.
It is time for the United Nations to act decisively to end systemic racism against UN personnel of African descent. UNSAG calls for urgent and effective follow-up of the recommendations of the Task Force on Racism set up by the Secretary-General and eagerly awaits on-boarding of the Special Adviser on Racism announced at the staff townhall in February of this year.
On behalf of UNSAG members, I express our confidence and commitment to support Secretary- General Antonio Guterres efforts to eradicate racism within the UN. We salute our colleagues, members of the United Nations People of African Descent, also known as UNPAD for their tireless efforts and urge the UN Secretariat and all UN entities to empower and collaborate with UNPAD.
So close to the conclusion of the International Decade for People of African Descent, and almost 500 years after the revolting Transatlantic trade of Africans began, recurring racist incidents around the world like the one in Buffalo remind us that indeed the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice.
Photo: Winnie Byanyima
We, international civil servants under the United Nations flag know that racism will not be eradicated overnight. Nevertheless, we are individually and collectively committed to effectively contribute towards the realization of an equal and just world where brutal manifestations of blatant anti-black racism are eliminated.
We will undertake this fight, starting at our workplace, the United Nations. To this effect, we are encouraged by the leadership and vision of Secretary-General António Guterres.
Our struggle continues.
This Op Ed is by the United Nations Senior Officials of African Descent Group (UNSAG)
About the author
Winnie Byanyima, is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General UNAIDS Executive Director and is also co-Chair of UNSAG.