Statement by Gregory Fortuin, Race Relations Conciliator

to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related intolerance

Durban, Tuesday 4 September 2001


Tena Koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa!

As fellow members of the human race we are all equal. I will thus dispose of the grand salutations to reinforce this equality and save a few precious minutes in the process.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related intolerance. At the outset let me - both as a proud son of Africa and in the way that is traditional in my adopted homeland of Aotearoa/New Zealand - acknowledge the people of this land and those who have gone before - in particular, Oom Gov Mbeki. A great man has fallen, but his legacy will live on.

I wish to record the support of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Race Relations Conciliator for the statement presented by Dr Pityana on behalf of the National Institutions. This statement is both historic as the first unified voice of National Institutions, and a valuable blue print for National Institutions in our fight against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related intolerance.

The statement by National Institutions is particularly relevant for New Zealand at this point as the present human rights structure is currently being reviewed to create a stronger human rights body which will enhance the organization's ability to better promote and protect human rights. A significant outcome will be to strengthen the role of the Race Relations Commissioner and allow greater flexibility in dealing with multiple discrimination. Although New Zealand has had an institutional framework for dealing with racism and racial discrimination for over 30 years it would be premature to be complacent about the present level of racial tolerance.

New Zealand is a treaty based, Pacific nation. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between the Crown and the Maori chiefs but was largely abrogated until the 1980s when it became obvious that New Zealand would only be able to move forward and develop as a nation if an attempt was made to address the historic inequities that resulted. As the Secretary General, Kofi Annan reminded us in his opening address, "there must be accountability for past actions". However, this must be done with an eye on the future and what we ultimately wish to achieve.

If, on the other hand, you are going nowhere then any road will get you there. Whilst we can never rewrite history, we can shape the future. If we fail to deal with our past it will forever hang as an oppressive cloud over all our tomorrows.

In New Zealand, righting the wrongs of the past was never going to be an easy task. There has been criticism of unfairness and bias by Non-Maori, which makes it important to agree on an approach that is acceptable to all New Zealanders. However, one must guard against the tyranny of the majority and ensure that justice and equality are not compromised. Informed debate and education initiatives promoting a tolerant and inclusive approach will be fundamental in this. Productive public debate is integral to the role of a National Institution and, properly used, one of the most effective, as it can remind people of the importance of the principles of nondiscrimination and allow them to negotiate a society that ensures equality, justice and human dignity for everyone.

New Zealand's demographic profile is changing rapidly as a consequence of immigration and resettlement and the high birth rates of Maori and Pacific Island people, making it more susceptible to racial tension. While New Zealand does not have the levels of racial tension that some of the countries represented here today have, it would be naive to assume that it never will. It may not, but one of the roles of a National Institution is to try and ensure that it does not. More than ever before, we must not only accept harmonized diversity and difference, but understand and value the benefits they bring. Only by fully appreciating the positive aspects of cultural belonging will people feel less threatened and more tolerant.

Over and above honoring its agreement with its indigenous people and respecting harmonized diversity, is the challenge of poverty and disadvantage exacerbated by ethnic clustering. Poverty and socio-economic exclusion provide the sharp edge to race relations in any country, particularly when poverty takes on an ethnic dimension. We must reverse the presumption that a person is poor because they are Maori or a Pacific Islander. Race relations is not just about grand slogans, but real economic empowerment. In New Zealand this challenge is being addressed, albeit at a painstakingly slow pace.

We can leave this conference with the most grandiose statements and plans of action and still not achieve anything. Ultimately what is necessary is visionary leadership - men and woman with fortitude and belief in the dream of a society characterized by human dignity, justice and equality. Each of us must keep this dream alive or else this gathering will have simply been an expensive exercise in futility.

I conclude with the words of Nelson Mandela as he looked Justice de Wet in the eye in 1964 expecting to hear the death sentenced pronounced. These same words were repeated by Madiba on his release in 1990:
"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die"

I thank you.