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International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
21 March

Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights for 2012

The relationship between racism and conflict is a deep-rooted, well-established one. A number of studies have shown that one of the earliest indicators of potential violence is the chronic disregard of minority rights. One survey by an international non-governmental organization indicated that more than 55 per cent of violent conflicts of a significant intensity between 2007 and 2009 had violations of minority rights or tensions between communities at their core.

Last year alone, we saw many terrible examples of ethnic violence in the midst of several conflicts in a number of countries around the world. Last week, on a visit to Guatemala, I saw for myself the tragic and longstanding consequences of historical practices of racism against indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. Guatemala is still addressing the legacy of 36 years of armed conflict.

Prevention of such conflict is clearly more desirable than later attempts to douse the flames and begin difficult processes of rebuilding, reconciliation and justice – not to mention the human and social costs. But the problem is that the earliest warnings of prejudice and discord are so often ignored, and it is only when the later, more sinister signs begin to emerge that the State and the international community react.

Twenty years ago, the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities recognized clearly the link between political and social stability and the promotion and protection of the rights of national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. States also recognized in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action that racism and racial discrimination are among the root causes of many internal and international conflicts. A look through the early warning files and reports of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a tragic reading of the kinds of conflicts that could have been prevented had those early warnings been heeded.

On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I call on States to heed the early warnings of prejudice, stereotypes, ignorance and xenophobia. I call on them to address, urgently, the marginalization and exclusion of individuals belonging to certain communities from political and economic decision-making. I call for a process of consultation and constant dialogue with all sectors of society, a redoubling of efforts to ensure that access to jobs, to land, to political and economic rights is not contingent on one’s colour, ethnic, national or racial background, and that development projects do not disproportionately disadvantage a particular community.

These are not new obligations on governments, but have long been part of the universally agreed human rights commitments made by States.

Leaving the dangerous societal problems of prejudice and racism to simmer on the back burner creates a real risk of explosive conflicts erupting, years or decades later.

Racism and prejudice can provide, propel and perpetuate the narratives that create and sustain conflict — whether in the developed or developing world. Let us not wait until grievances turn to violence or prejudice turns to genocide before we take action.

Navi Pillay

Previous messages of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

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