Regional Conference of the Americas in preparation for the World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

On behalf of ECLAC, I should like to express our deep feeling of honour in joining with the Government of Chile and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in this opening ceremony of the Regional Conference of the Americas in preparation for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

It is no coincidence that this Conference is hosted by Chile, a country which was fortunate enough to count Hernán Santa Cruz Barceló among its citizens. His name is closely associated not only with the history of ECLAC, but also with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which he was one of the architects. As a member of the United Nations Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, he was untiring in the fight against discrimination. The remarkable effort made by Chile since its return to democracy to fully reinstate respect for human rights is but a confirmation of this historic legacy.

I should also like to publicly express my appreciation for the work of Mrs. Mary Robinson and all our United Nations colleagues who strive tirelessly, even at the risk of their own lives, to build a world on the cornerstone of respect for human beings.

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On the threshold of this new millennium, our region is still a witness to forms of discrimination that have a palpable influence on the economic and social indicators recorded in indigenous, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean groups. These populations are typically characterized by extreme poverty, which is dramatically reflected, among other things, in life expectancy at birth, years of schooling, illiteracy, malnutrition, health conditions and the public services available to them. Their access to the justice system and influence in political dialogue also fall well below the average levels of the region's population.

Thus, for example, 68% of homes located in indigenous areas lack drinking water; the indicators of mortality from preventable diseases, such as diarrhoea, among the indigenous population are six times higher than national averages; in areas where indigenous people represent 30% or more of the total population, 26% of school-age children do not attend school, only 56% of people over 15 can read and write, and 37% have never attended school. As might be expected, these figures are a reflection of a poor or non-existent level of education and, consequently, these groups typically find employment only in the precarious and informal sectors of the market, which only exacerbates the conditions of poverty in which they are trapped.

In addition to the problems of access and coverage of the educational system, there are unresolved issues relating to the relevance of curricula, attention to intercultural issues and bilingualism. The education offered to those fortunate enough to have access to it leads, in most cases, to the loss of their ethnic identity, their language and their culture.

There is no doubt that the economic and social exclusion suffered by the indigenous, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean peoples, and experienced to a worse degree by women, is based on common types of discrimination which affect all the poorer strata of our societies. Having a different ethnic origin and belonging to a different culture, however, also makes these groups victims of other specific kinds of intolerance and discrimination, based exclusively on their racial, ethnic and cultural identity.

As set forth in the report of the twenty-eighth session of ECLAC, 'Defining the construction of more equitable societies as the essential aim of development brings to the fore the importance of upholding the population's economic, social and cultural rights, which are based on the values of equality, solidarity and non-discrimination?'. The full enforcement of human rights as a basis for the construction of as society characterized by equality, solidarity and non-discrimination is, without doubt, the great challenge for our region in the twenty-first century.

The region is also witness to certain practices that may be defined as xenophobic, which are mainly associated with processes of intraregional migration. Such migration may be undertaken for economic reasons or have been forced by situations of armed conflict in the region. Feelings of 'rejection of outsiders' are usually related to the pressure the immigrants create in the labour market. Persons from our region who migrate to industrialized countries are also, all too often, the target of similar, or even stronger, sentiments.

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If we hope to overcome these phenomena, for the benefit of the entire population without distinction as to race, colour, gender or nationality, then our actions must be directed at building a society based on the values of equality and solidarity. Action must also be undertaken directly with indigenous populations, ranging from the signing of covenants or agreements to 'affirmative action' measures that target these groups in the areas of education and labour, among others.

The recognition of the economic, social, political and cultural rights of ethnic and national minorities can and should be manifested in the support, signature, ratification and follow-up of the different agreements and commitments reached at the national and international levels. At the national level, States must promote opportunities for the groups concerned to participate in civil society, communities and organizations, in order to set priorities and generate mechanisms of consultation, negotiation and conflict resolution and to design policies and programmes, all within the framework of specific constitutional standards for indigenous populations or ethnic minorities in general.

Within these parameters, the indigenous, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin peoples have a clear and legitimate need to gain equitable access to what ECLAC has termed 'modern citizenship'. This is a concept which takes account of the particular features and practices that are woven into the identity of the region, acknowledging the multiethnic and pluricultural nature of our societies. Viewed thus, citizenship goes hand in hand with the mutual recognition of every individual as a bearer of rights on an equal footing.

Educational programmes must be adapted to the indigenous cultures. Such measures will play a key role in strengthening the cultural identity of these groups and enabling them to improve their formal academic achievement and are a prerequisite for their participation in the production process.

Educational programmes must begin by recognizing the multicultural nature of our societies, which must be reflected in school curricula, in the values taught and in the teaching methods applied. Bicultural and bilingual education in areas with a large indigenous population must be geared towards developing individuals who are competent in two different cultures and enabling them to handle the basic cultural codes of modern society without sacrificing their own culture and language. We must continue to build on the progress that the region has made to date in this direction.

Distance communication has become an increasingly important factor in gaining political influence and public visibility and enabling those who have been chosen to represent the actors concerned to speak with authority. Thus, priority must be given to promoting and ensuring that indigenous, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean peoples have access to new technologies, especially in the field of communications. This is especially important in enabling them to become productive members of today's information society and enhancing their collective capacity for management, organization and political advocacy.

In order to enhance the participation of indigenous peoples in the labour market, improvements must be made in the education and training they receive. Parallel to taking action in the field of education, however, every effort must be made to ensure that indigenous, Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean workers ?both men and women? are not subjected to discrimination. Not only must they receive equal pay for equal work but they must also be guaranteed all the rights and social benefits to which they are entitled. Affirmative action programmes may be necessary to reinforce such measures.

Many of the health problems faced by these populations are caused or aggravated by the lack of access to health-care services, either because the services are too far away, because the people work in the informal sector or because they lack information. Thus, special measures must be taken to make health-care and other social services more accessible to these peoples and to ensure that they really do meet their needs.

Hand in hand with improving access to conventional medicine, traditional medicine and pharmacology must also be recognized and promoted. This will not only help improve the health of these communities, but it will also make it easier for them to fit back into their own cultures.

Another very important issue, especially for the indigenous populations, is that of their territorial rights ? their right to own the lands they have lived in and worked on throughout their history. States must protect these rights, either by enacting broad or specific legislation or by recognizing the customary rights of these peoples and their longstanding history of using and occupying the land.

Indigenous peoples have a wealth of experience and knowledge regarding the management of natural resources and the protection of biodiversity, and the States of the region must attach high priority to working together in learning from them. Regulatory frameworks must be set up to facilitate well-informed participation on the part of indigenous communities in those projects that directly affect them and to support training programmes on management of natural resources and protection of biodiversity.

In the region, as in the rest of the world, a number of organizations of civil society are working to combat racism and other forms of discrimination and exclusion. Their efforts have been extremely important, both in working directly to meet the most pressing needs of these populations and in protecting their rights. As these organizations work together with the governments of the region towards the common goal of combating racism and discrimination, they can make a significant contribution to the improvement of the well-being of the populations that are affected by these phenomena, and hence to the integrated development of our region.

It is also essential to carry out actions aimed at breaking down the mechanisms of prejudice that cause the majority population in some societies to disqualify minorities. School curricula, the mass media and the workplace must be included in such efforts, so that all members of society are taught to respect and appreciate minority cultures ?in some cases, a majority indigenous culture?, and thus develop a culture of tolerance for diversity among all groups.

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Xenophobia in the region is closely related to intraregional migration. In the struggle against xenophobia, governments and States must be willing to work together with the media, the schools and shapers of public opinion in general, so as to clearly convey a message of tolerance and brotherhood.

In addition, governments of both receiving and sending countries must join in providing direct assistance to immigrants through cooperation agreements and mutual communication on issues such as reciprocity of treatment. This must be reflected in common criteria regarding permanent legal status, formal employment and access to basic health services, social security, education and justice.

In the case of migrants who are fleeing from war or political repression, receiving countries must raise the consciousness of their citizens regarding the traumatic situations that have caused these groups to migrate by providing full information about the situations that caused them to move.

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This Conference will be addressing the fact that discrimination, racism and xenophobia do exist in Latin America and the Caribbean. We cannot hope to find solutions for these problems unless we recognize them as such. That will be the main task of this regional meeting in preparation for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.