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

Durban, South Africa
Saturday 2 September 2001

Madam President,

On behalf of my delegation and on my own behalf, I felicitate you on your election as Chairman of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. We are grateful to the Government and the people of South Africa for their warm hospitality and for the excellent arrangements for the Conference.

It is fitting that the World Conference is taking place in your great country. The solidarity of the international community with South Africa's struggle against apartheid symbolizes mankind's united quest for equality, dignity and justice. We take this opportunity to salute the valiant peoples of Africa. They braved repression, brutality and indignity and remained in the vanguard of the war against racism and racial discrimination. They have set a glorious example.

I would like to record our deep appreciation for the inspiring Inaugural address by President Mbeki. We hope the Conference would be guided by the forward looking vision he outlined. The thought provoking statements of Secretary General Kofi Annan and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, should assist us in our work.

Madam President,

The international community takes legitimate pride in its historic triumph against apartheid, the most inhuman and abhorrent manifestation of racism. We must show courage and sagacity also in facing up to the heinous consequences of the racist practices of the colonial era. Slavery and slave trade caused untold misery to countless numbers as did imperialism and colonialism. In saying so, we do not mire this Conference in the past. Of course, this World Conference must be focused, constructive and forward-looking. We do not wish that we confine ourselves to recriminations for historic wrongs. To do so will neither be purposeful, nor action-oriented, in combating modern manifestations of racism that cry out for urgent action. But, we must study the past to learn lessons for the future. The demise of imperialism and colonialism have not led to the elimination of attitudes, habits and thought processes ingrained in entire populations over generations. We are united in our belief that our global civilization is enriched by diversity. Yet, we witness exclusivism based on racial hatred; violence as an instrumentality for achieving racial cleansing. Sadly, theories of racial superiority continue to be propagated and practised even though recent biological research has conclusively controverted such beliefs. We continue to witness instances of destruction of constitutional order to promote policies based on racial or ethnic discrimination. If we are to move towards a better future, we must rededicate ourselves to our fight against racism and racial discrimination.

Madam President,

Economic disparities sustain and strengthen racist attitudes. As do political platforms and concepts based on racial hatred and discrimination, which regard foreigners as rivals, competitors and a threat to local prosperity, culture and identity. So also immigration, citizenship and refugee laws with racist overtones. We must remain vigilant also against the vulnerability of modern communication technology. The internet has turned the world into a global village. Yet, this technological beneficence is being used by some to spread racial hatred.

Madam President,

It is here in South Africa, indeed in this very city of Durban, that Mahatma Gandhi launched the Satyagraha movement - struggle based on truth - against the racist regime in South Africa. In 1946, India was the first country to raise its voice against apartheid at the United Nations. We have always regarded racism and racial discrimination as the anti-thesis of everything humanity stands for - equality, justice, peace and progress. It is a negation of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In our own national, context, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and guided by the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar and other social reformers, the government is committed to combating and eliminating discrimination in all its manifestation. Over half a century ago, we built into our Constitution, human rights and fundamental freedoms as justiciable principles. It proscribes discrimination on any ground, including race. Appropriate laws supplement this constitutional provision. The Indian Penal Code prohibits dissemination of ideas that promote disharmony on any ground, including race. The Constitution pioneered affirmative action programmes for the socially disadvantaged. We have put in place an administrative and institutional framework to tackle, within out democratic framework, different forms of discrimination. Our independent judiciary, an ever-vigilant media and an active civil society have strengthened the government's efforts for attaining equality and non-discrimination. Our nationhood is based on values of democracy and rule of law, pluralism, tolerance and diversity. We stand resolved to counter the forces that seek to destroy these values.

At the same time, we are humbled by our awareness that much remains to be done. Action at the level of the Government, however important it may be is not enough unless there is a change in social attitudes and values. Change in social attitudes cannot be achieved simply by legislating. Our society has a tradition and capacity for dialogue and building consensus. But as all democratic societies know only too well, such change can only be brought about through education and persuasion. This cannot be achieved overnight.

Madam President,

To ensure that our participation in this Conference is meaningful, constructive and in consonance with our national policies, Prime Minister Vajpayee constituted a National Committee under the chairmanship of External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh. The committee deliberated on the issues relating to this Conference, and, in order to ensure proper preparations through a nation-wide discussion, heard presentations by NGOs, academics, professionals, representatives of the civil society and others interested in assisting the Committee. The Committee was heartened by the wide spread approbation of the constitutional and legislative provisions against any form of discrimination and of affirmative action programmes. It noted also the call for more concerted efforts at re-orienting ingrained social attitudes. The Committee recommended that there was need to strengthen the national structures and institutions to ensure effective implementation of the Constitutional and legislative provisions, affirmative action programmes and transform social attitudes within our society.

I affirm the commitment of my Government to act on this recommendation.

Madam President,

In the run up to the world Conference, there has been propaganda, highly exaggerated and misleading, often based on anecdotal evidence, regarding caste-based discrimination in India. We in India have faced this evil squarely. We unequivocally condemn this and, indeed, any other form of discrimination. The issue has remained at the top of our national agenda. I have just spoken of our Constitutional, legislative and administrative framework; of our affirmative action programmes for the uplift of the members of the historically disadvantaged castes. We are proud of the positive difference these measures have made. The institutions of our democratic polity, the progressive removal of poverty and the spread of literacy have empowered and given a voice to millions of the weaker sections of our society. We are determined to continue this national endeavour.

Madam President,

We are firmly of the view that the issue of caste is not an appropriate subject for discussion at this Conference. We are here to ensure that there is no state-sponsored, institutionalised, discrimination against any individual citizen or groups of citizens. We are here to ensure that states do not condone or encourage regressive social attitudes. We are not here to engage in social engineering within member states. It is neither legitimate nor feasible nor practical for this World Conference or, for that matter, even the UN to legislate, let alone police, individual behaviour in our societies. The battle has to be fought within our respective societies to change thoughts, processes and attitudes; indeed, the hearts and souls of our peoples. This is the task that we pledge ourselves to remain engaged in.

Madam President,

The World Conference should call for effective recourse and remedies for victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, based on the principles enunciated in the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Promulgation of stringent national laws, against these phenomena, as necessary; their strict implementation; and the setting up of independent national institutions with powers to address problems connected with endemic racism; are some essential steps in the combat against racism. The Conference should also encourage countries to introduce affirmative action in respect of disadvantaged segments of their populations. Special attention needs to be paid to secure, for women and children, who are victims of such discrimination, their basic human rights and dignity. The power of education must be harnessed to instil the right values in young minds.

The UN agencies concerned should be provided with requisite resources to take, within their respective mandates, all possible action to combat racism and racial discrimination. The Inter Parliamentary Union can play a particularly important role by encouraging reflection in national Parliaments. The Conference should encourage the mass media to promote ideas of tolerance and understanding.

Madam President,

As one of the oldest civilisations of the world, India is fully conscious of its responsibility. We will work closely and tirelessly with your delegation and with all other delegations to ensure that the lofty ideals before this World Conference lead us to seek constructive, productive and lasting solutions to our common concern.

Thank you, Madam President.