Racism, racial discrimination, and related forms of intolerance are violations of universal values and the inalienable rights of human beings. All the Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) have recognized this by stating in the OAS Charter that “[t]he American States proclaim the fundamental rights of the individual without distinction as to race, nationality, creed, or sex.”

In the Americas, especially in Latin America and Caribbean countries, racism appears in many ways. These manifestations vary based on different historical experiences, with racial and ethnic discrimination being instilled through slavery and European colonialism beginning in the 15th century. Still today, multiple forms of discrimination and racism against people of African descent, indigenous peoples, and other groups and are entrenched and on the rise in the hemisphere. The recent visibility of police brutality, episodes of racial profiling, systemic violence against people of African descent, and impunity in these cases are proof that the eradication of racism cannot wait.

Since the year 2000, the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race & Equality), together with Afro-Latinx civil society organizations, has led advocacy efforts to achieve the drafting and adoption of an Inter-American Convention against Racism. After years of advocacy, on June 5, 2013, the OAS General Assembly adopted the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Forms of Intolerance (“Inter-American Convention against Racism” or “CIRDI”), an instrument that represents an important milestone in consolidating the OAS's commitment to the complete and unconditional eradication of racism, racial discrimination, and all forms of intolerance. With its adoption, the CIRDI became the counterpart convention in the American regional system to the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The ICERD, to which all 35 OAS Member States are party, was the first international instrument combatting racism and racial discrimination.

CIRDI seeks to strengthen regional efforts in the field of human rights and create an international human rights protection body of that is closer to the local context and responds to the realities of the region. The adoption of the Inter-American Convention against Racism represents important progress in the recognition of disparities based on racism. The existence of an instrument of this nature is a necessary step for the visibility and fight against racism. Today, however, only 6 of the 35 OAS Member States are party to the Inter-American Convention against Racism. Of the remaining 29 members, 7 have signed, but not ratified, the Convention.

The Inter-American Convention against Racism and its importance

The Inter-American Convention against Racism contains valuable contributions, beyond providing new tools to the region on the fight against racism. This Inter-American instrument, for example, is the first to establish a legal definition of the term “racism.” Although the definition of racial discrimination in both the ICERD and the CIRDI is similar - both instruments establish that racial discrimination is understood as discrimination based on race, color, lineage, or national or ethnic origin - the Inter-American instrument is the first to establish the definition of the term “racism” in a legal instrument. The CIRDI also takes a step forward by defining indirect racial discrimination (Art. 1-2), defining multiple or aggravated discrimination (Art. 1-3), and defining and proscribing intolerance (Art. 1-6). Furthermore, while the ICERD establishes that acts of racial discrimination are limited to the public sphere, CIRDI specifies that the acts can occur in the public or private sphere.

In addition to contributing to a broader understanding of acts that constitute racial discrimination, the Inter-American Convention against Racism provides a living instrument to support the region’s States in the task of combating, eliminating, and overcoming conditions and patterns of racial exclusion. It does so through the creation of an Inter-American Committee for the Prevention and Elimination of Racism, Racial Discrimination, and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance (Art. 15 iv). The Committee's role is to monitor the commitments undertaken in the Convention, serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences, make recommendations to the State Parties, and receive reports from the States on the fulfillment of the obligations of the Convention. However, the establishment of this Committee requires 10 States to ratify the Convention, which has not yet been achieved.

Another novel provision of the CIRDI is the obligation it carries to establish or designate a national institution that shall be responsible for monitoring compliance with the Convention (Art. 13), which creates additional encouragement for States to put the issue of racism and racial and ethnic discrimination in the center of their domestic agenda.

The Convention foresees an important role for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), encouraging States to consult and request advisory assistance and technical cooperation from the Commission to ensure the effective application of provision of the Convention (Art. 15 ii). Most importantly of all, the CIRDI opens possibilities for international judicial protection of victims of racial discrimination, including reparations. To meet this possibility, State Parties must recognize the binding jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on all matters relating to the interpretation or application of the Convention. (Art. 15 iii).