Fact Sheet 2
A historical perspective: getting from here to there
Preparations are now underway to hold a World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in South Africa in 2001. The convening of this World Conference has been preceded by 50 years of activity by the United Nations in its efforts to eradicate all racism and racial discrimination.
Early Efforts by the United Nations
When the international community adopted the United Nations Charter in 1945, it accepted the obligation to pursue the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. In December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which declares in Article 1 that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which declares genocide an international crime.
Through the early 1960s, efforts were partially focused on racial discrimination in Non-Self-Governing Territories, where the end of racism was anticipated as a natural result of decolonization. The General Assembly repeatedly supported the legitimacy of the struggle of oppressed populations, particularly in South Africa, Namibia and Southern Rhodesia.
The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
On 20 November 1963, the General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In its preamble, the Declaration recognized that in spite of progress, discrimination based on race, colour or ethnic origin continued to give cause for serious concern.
In Article 1, it reaffirms the principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and their fundamental importance to good international relations: "Discrimination between human beings on the ground of race, colour, or ethnic origin is an offence to human dignity and shall be condemned as a denial of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations among nations and as a fact capable of disturbing peace and security among nations." The Declaration, however, is not legally binding.
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
On 21 December 1965, the General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Convention, which is a legally binding instrument, entered into force on 4 January 1969 and now has 155 States parties. It defines racial discrimination as any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise… of human rights and fundamental freedoms…" States parties agree to condemn racism and to undertake measures to eliminate it in all its forms. The Convention also established the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the first such human rights treaty monitoring body. It oversees implementation of the Convention by reviewing reports of the States parties to the Convention.
International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination
In 1968, shortly before the Convention entered into force, the first International Conference on Human Rights, meeting in Tehran, called for the criminalization of racist and Nazi organizations. On 11 December 1969, the General Assembly designated 1971 as the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. It asked that the Year "be observed in the name of the ever-growing struggle against racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations and in the name of international solidarity with those struggling against racism". It appealed urgently to States to intensify their efforts to eradicate racial discrimination in all its contemporary forms, including Nazism and apartheid.
Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (1973-1982)
In follow-up to the Year, the General Assembly invited the Commission on Human Rights to submit suggestions for a "Decade for vigorous and continued mobilization against racism and racial discrimination in all its forms". The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities formulated a draft programme for such a Decade, and, on 2 November 1972, the General Assembly designated the ten-year period beginning on 10 December 1973 as the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.
The programme for the Decade was structured around a worldwide education campaign and measures to be taken to implement United Nations instruments promoting the elimination of racial discrimination. Its goals were to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind on grounds of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, by eradicating racial prejudice, racism and racial discrimination; to prevent the continuation or expansion of racist policies, to discourage the strengthening of racist regimes, to "isolate and dispel the fallacious and mythical beliefs, policies and practices that contribute to racism and racial discrimination; and to put an end to racist regimes".
First World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination
The first World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination was held in Geneva in 1978, at the mid-point of the first Decade. Its Declaration and Programme of Action reaffirmed the inherent falsity of racism and the threat it posed to friendly relations among peoples and nations. It stated:
* Any doctrine of racial superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and has no justification whatsoever;
* All peoples and all human groups have contributed to the progress of civilisation and cultures which constitute the common heritage of humanity;
* All forms of discrimination … based on the theory of racial superiority, exclusiveness or hatred are a violation of fundamental human rights and jeopardize friendly relations among peoples, co-operation between nations and international peace and security.
It specifically condemned apartheid, "the extreme form of institutionalized racism", as a crime against humanity, an affront to the dignity of mankind and a threat to peace and security in the world. In addition, it recommended that, because of the severe economic inequalities that resulted from racial discrimination, efforts to combat racism should include measures aimed at improving the living conditions of men and women.
Second World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination
The second World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, held in Geneva, 1-12 August 1983, reviewed and assessed the activities undertaken during the Decade and formulated specific measures to ensure the implementation of United Nations instruments to eliminate racism, racial discrimination and apartheid. In addition to reaffirming its condemnations of racism, the Declaration adopted by the Conference stated, "Racism and racial discrimination are continuing scourges which must be eradicated throughout the world". It declared apartheid totally abhorrent to the conscience and dignity of mankind, a crime against humanity, and a threat to international peace and security.
It called for measures to be taken against all ideologies and practices, such as apartheid, nazism, fascism and neo-fascism based on racial or ethnic exclusiveness or intolerance, hatred, terror or systematic denials of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Additionally, it noted the double discrimination often encountered by women; it stated the urgent need to protect the rights of refugees, immigrants and migrant workers; and it welcomed the establishment of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. It also recommended the launch of a Second Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.
Second Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (1983-1992)
On 22 November 1983, the General Assembly reviewed the report of the second World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, noting with concern that, despite the efforts of the international community, the principal objectives of the first Decade had not been attained, and that millions of human beings continued to be the victims of varied forms of racism, racial discrimination and apartheid. The Assembly proclaimed the Second Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, to begin on 10 December 1983.
A portion of the Programme of Action for the Second Decade focused on the elimination of apartheid, and requested that the Security Council consider the imposition of mandatory sanctions against the Government of South Africa. The Programme called upon the mass media to play a role in disseminating information on methods and techniques to be used in combatting racism, racial discrimination and apartheid, and warned of the possible one-sidedness or distortion which was possible when members of racial or ethnic minorities were denied self expression. Other recommended measures included those to promote and protect the human rights of persons belonging to minority groups, indigenous populations and peoples and migrant workers; and the establishment of recourse procedures for victims of racial discrimination. The Second Decade witnessed one of the greatest achievements of the United Nations: in 1990, the South African Government released Nelson Mandela and began to dismantle the system of apartheid.
Third Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (1993-2002)
In June 1993, the second World Conference on Human Rights took place in Vienna. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action stressed the interdependence, indivisibility and integrity of all human rights. The Conference welcomed the end of apartheid, but took note of the somber reality of the increase of intolerance, xenophobia, racism and racial discrimination in many countries, and highlighted the rights of minorities, women and indigenous peoples.
On 20 December 1993, the General Assembly proclaimed the Third Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (1994-2003). Also in 1993, the Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. He has reported on institutionalized and indirect forms of racism and racial discrimination against national, racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities and migrant workers throughout the world. His mandate has also emphasized new manifestations of racism and xenophobia in developed countries in particular.
The Third Decade has thus comprised a broadened view of racism, including the realisation that all societies in the world are affected and hindered by discrimination. The international community has undertaken to determine the basic roots of racism and to call for the changes necessary to prevent the eruption of conflicts caused by racism or racial discrimination. By necessity, ethnic cleansing and genocide have come under consideration, as well as the institutionalization of xenophobia, as some States implement measures against migrant workers. Globalization is exerting new social pressures, requiring new methods to combat racism - and a renewed commitment.
The World Conference against Racism in South Africa in 2001
The World Conference, that is intended to be action-oriented, will focus on practical steps to eradicate racism, including measures of prevention, education and protection. It will also endeavour to provide effective remedies for the victims of racism and racial discrimination. The United Nations has repeatedly affirmed its "special responsibility" for victims of racism and oppression. According to Mrs. Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "If the World Conference is to make a difference, it must not only raise awareness about the scourge of racism, but it must lead to positive actions at the national, regional and international levels that can bring relief to those who bear the brunt of racism and racial discrimination. This is a subject that requires firmness of resolve, disciplined and persistent action, and clear-sighted thinking."
Most people agree, racists are not born, they develop, and a primary cause of racism is ignorance. As the UN Secretary-General said on the occasion of the observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21 March 1999, "Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda…. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will and must be defeated."
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