Dr. Shameen Shaista

Director, Fiji Human Rights Commission

World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Durban, South Africa
31 August - 7 September 2001

World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Durban, South Africa
31 August - 7 September 2001

Madame President and Secretary-General of the Conference, Your Excellency, Ms Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

From its inception, the United Nations has viewed racism as a violation of human rights. This was clearly expressed in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states,

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

This idea was subsequently expressed in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These Covenants echoed the language of the Universal Declaration by affirming that the rights set out in them should be enjoyed without distinction as to race and colour.

And Madame Chair, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted by the General Assembly in 1965, provides the most comprehensive international human rights instrument dealing with racism, to date.

Yet, in spite of this standard of equality, which in theory at least, most people would like to aspire to, the reality of racial discrimination, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance is starkly obvious in most states of the world. In many cases this reality is managed effectively by legislation and by the establishment of certain mechanisms to manage conflict. However, prejudices, based on ethinic or national origin, colour, language, religion and difference, are notoriously difficult to eradicate. They are almost a part of the essence of humanity itself- that we fear the unknown and that we are suspicious of difference.

But Madame Chair, in this conference, we cannot deal with prejudices of people only or the negative ideas they hold about each other. Such prejudices can be dealt with by long-term strategies such as education and the use of the media in changing people's attitudes.

The real problem, and one we must discuss at a World Conference such as this, is when states or governments give effect to such prejudices by translating them into government policy. Racial discrimination, Madame Chair, is discrimination which is practised by the State or condoned by the state, either directly or indirectly, through its policies of inequality.

This, in my view, and in the view of all national human rights institutions of the world, is the real difficulty because once the state gives effect to the prejudices normally held by people about `the other', it creates an environment and an opportunity for individuals or groups, and indeed for the state itself, to validate the prejudices which could so easily have been eradicated by a different type of state policy altogether- one that celebrates difference and diversity rather than condemning them.

While the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination has been ratified by 155 countries, although some, like-Fiji, did so with some severe reservations, it is clear that much work needs to be done by national human rights institutions to communicate the meaning of the Convention to everyone in our country. This is a commitment, Madame Chair, I am pleased to report, that has been undertaken by the Fiji Human Rights Commission.

Because, despite ratification, states parties have a long way to go. The Committee on CERD has concluded that `no State was immune to racially discriminatory practices, which often emerged as a reflection of traditions or age-old practices or as a result of the introduction of policies or ideologies based on chauvinistic nationalism. Other factors [have] also contributed to racial discrimination in the exercise of economic, social and cultural life, including socio-economic underdevelopment, segregation experienced by indigenous populations, racial conflicts giving rise to violence, and xenophobia against minority groups, undocumented migrants, refugees and displaced persons' (February 2000).

It is precisely because of such realisation, expressed by the Committee in recognition of the problems it has encountered since the Convention was first adopted by the General Assembly, that the focus of the Third Decade has been the elimination and eradication of the roots of racism and recognition of institutional racism and the need to bring about institutional change.

The Human Rights Commission of Fiji is an independent national institution established by Constitution with the mandate to educate the public about human rights standards, to advise Government about compliance with international human rights instruments, and to receive complaints from the public about human rights violations.

In the area of racial discrimination, the Commission is guided by the Fiji Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights provisions in the Constitution, and by the Human Rights Commission Act which prohibits unfair discrimination by the State, by the private sector in employment, and, in some circumstances, by individuals. The laws of Fiji against discrimination bind the State and they are underpinned by the principle of compact between citizen or civil society and the State. Despite any reviews of the Constitution, the basic principle of equality in our Constitution ought to remain consistent with the international principle that the right to be free from unfair discrimination either directly or indirectly is a non-derogable right.

Madame Chair, in recognition of our role as the national human rights institution of Fiji, the Fiji Commission has undertaken some specific tasks in recent months and formulated some concrete recommendations both in the interim and as follow-up strategies to reconstruct race relations in Fiji after the attempted coup of 2000 which, among other things, highlighted racial discrimination practices in Fiji for all the world to see.

First, the Commission's education policy has been redrafted to take account of the crisis of 2000, with the staff of the Commission directing their programmes towards dealing with ethnic prejudices held by people in the country. Secondly, the Commission is publicising international standards of
human rights to the State and other actors such as the church and political parties who have much ideological power and power over individual and collective conscience. Without the support of these significant stakeholders, racial tensions will continue to simmer in Fiji for some time to come. Last but not least, the Fiji Commission is ensuring that complaints of racial discrimination are promptly and effectively dealt with either through conciliation and mediation or, where this is not possible, through the courts.

Madame Chair, recently, the Fiji Commission facilitated a national race relations seminar, entitled `Reconstructing Race Relations in Fiji' which was attended by senior government officials, political parties, church and religious groups, youth representatives, the army, police, human rights defenders and our senior chiefly elder and most recently Deputy Prime Minister, who is heading our government delegation at this Conference.

Madame Chair, the resolutions of that Seminar illustrate quite clearly what can be achieved at the negotiating table with respect to reconstruction of race relations in a particular country or indeed, where relevant, race relations between countries. Delegates at our Seminar resolved to accept the concept of equality, as contained in our Constitution, while affirming the importance of indigenous rights as human rights, noting that these rights should not be misconstrued in order to foster prejudice, racial discrimination and injustice.

This, in essence, was one of the key features of the agreement reached at the Seminar and it provides the Commission with a platform with which to facilitate a follow-up after this World Conference. Delegates also confirmed the 1997 Constitution of Fiji as a `living document' which forms the basis of partnership between all peoples in Fiji and partnership among all communities in Fiji. And for reconciliation to proceed without hindrance, the importance of remedies provided by the State for victims of racism and racial discrimination, including reparation to individuals and institutions in different forms such as restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition, was noted.

Madame Chair, it will not be an easy task for a small and new national human rights institution such as ours to help facilitate improved race relations in Fiji. However, we commit ourselves to the idea of equality of all human beings regardless of colour, national or ethnic origin, race, language and religion, acknowledging also that gender has its own specific intersectionality with all these other characteristics. The follow-up programmes of the Fiji Human Rights Commission will therefore be underpinned by the commitment to equality as expressed in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration which is our foundational document. There can be no higher ideal than the belief that everyone is born equal in dignity and rights, and indeed, the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood is a goal that even a small Pacific Island nation such as ours can aspire to. In this endeavour we will work towards a partnership with both the State and civil society.

Madame Chairperson, I thank you most sincerely on behalf of the Fiji Human Rights Commission.

Delivered by the Director of Fiji Human Rights Commission,
Dr Shaista Shameem, to the World Conference,
4 September 2001.