World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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RIGHTS-AMERICAS: Civil Society Against Intolerance

By Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Dec 4 (IPS) - Representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from 30 countries of the Americas meeting Sunday and Monday in the Chilean capital condemned intolerance and called on governments in the region to adopt effective measures to guarantee respect for human rights.
Some 1,500 delegates of civil society are taking part in the Americas NGOs Forum against Racism, Xenophobia, Intolerance and Discrimination in Santiago.

The official Regional Expert Group Meeting preparatory to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism and Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance - slated for next year in South Africa - will run here Tuesday through Thursday.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who will preside over next year's World Conference, said that at this week's regional gathering in Santiago she would push for the ratification of the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute that was approved in 1998 at a special international conference in Rome.

Shortly before heading to Santiago, Robinson told the correspondent for the Chilean daily 'El Mercurio' in Geneva that she would like the American continent to take a leadership role in the initiative to consolidate the ICC in order to prevent future human rights violations and impunity for perpetrators.

Robinson added that her visit to Santiago would serve as ''an excellent opportunity'' for discussing the case of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) with President Ricardo Lagos and high-ranking officials of the Chilean justice system.

The Pinochet case entered a decisive phase last Friday, when Judge Juan Guzmán ordered that the elderly retired general be put under house arrest in connection with the ''kidnapping'' of 19 political prisoners in 1973 by a special military mission, the ''caravan of death.''

The mission consisted of senior military officers who travelled to several cities in Chile to summarily execute 79 political prisoners shortly after the coup d'etat in which Pinochet overthrew democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

Guzmán's deicsion was appealed Saturday by the defence attorneys representing the 85-year-old retired general, who was stripped of the immunity from prosecution he enjoyed as a life- long senator earlier this year. The Santiago Appeals Court is to pronounce itself on the case within the next two days.

Although the countries of the Southern Cone of the Americas do not have major problems with human rights today, they should clarify key chapters of their history, especially the cases of thousands of people who were ''disappeared'' by de facto military regimes, said Robinson.

Above and beyond the latest developments of the Pinochet case and the repressive legacy of Latin America's dictatorships, the meeting in Santiago is carrying out an in-depth analysis of the social, legal, cultural and structural factors that contribute to discrimination and intolerance in the Americas.

People of African descent, indigenous peoples and immigrants suffer from racial discrimination from North America to the southern tip of South America, said Francisco Estévez, with the Ideas Foundation, the organiser of the NGO forum.

The representatives of NGOs meeting in the Lastarria neighbourhood, one of the oldest parts of central Santiago, also pronounced themselves against discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, religion or age, and against HIV- positive individuals and the disabled.

Epsi Campbell, representing an Americas-wide alliance of people of African descent, pointed out that 90 percent of the 60 million women of African origin in the region were victims of poverty and social exclusion.

The creation of a new organisation was also announced at the civil society gathering: Oro Negro (Black Gold), the first Chilean association of the descendants of African slaves, a community living in the valleys of Lluta, Azapa and Camarones in the province of Arica, on the border with Peru, some 2,000 kms north of Santiago.

Oscar González, the head of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights, underlined that in his country and Central America there were 18 million indigenous people suffering ''tremendous discrimination'' due to the governments' lack of political will to enforce international treaties on human rights. (END/IPS/tra-so/ggr/ff/sw/00)

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