Racial Equality ‘Is Under Attack’, Experts Warn General Assembly, Urging States to Mark International Day by Stamping out Discrimination, Intolerance

GA/12003
20 March 2018
Seventy-second Session, 79th Meeting (PM)

Racial Equality ‘Is Under Attack’, Experts Warn General Assembly, Urging States to Mark International Day by Stamping out Discrimination, Intolerance

Speakers today called for urgent action to stop the rampant rise of xenophobia, racism and intolerance, as the General Assembly commemorated the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed on 21 March.

Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, stressed that “globally, racial equality is under attack”.  Vile discourses of explicit hatred and ideologies of racial superiority had moved from the fringe to the mainstream, with bigotry fuelling human rights violations and extreme violence against minorities, refugees, migrants, stateless persons and those internally displaced.

Underlining its particular impact on women as well as sexual and gender diverse populations, she declared:  “From crowds of youths marching to neo‑Nazi chants in Charlottesville, Warsaw and Berlin, to the racist and xenophobic attitudes of politicians in the highest levels of office worldwide […] the assault on the human dignity of millions around the world has reached alarming proportions.”

Emphasizing that the world could not afford to ignore any dimension of the problem, she underscored that “there should be no compromises in the pursuit of racial equality today”.  Extremism and systemic racial exclusion threatened not only the specific groups they targeted, but also the very political and legal foundations of States.

 “We need to stand up for the young man overlooked in a job interview because of the colour of his skin; for the girl excluded from society or suffering violence only because of her race,” said General Assembly Vice‑President Odo Tevi (Vanuatu), speaking on behalf of the world body’s President.  Ill‑treatment of people based on their race did not occur in silos.  It affected every aspect of life, from development to peace and human rights for all.

“We should speak openly about racial discrimination, and more importantly, we must listen to our neighbours and friends in this global village to hear the stories that reveal our common humanity, despite our own uniqueness and differences,” he said.  The dialogue must include children and young people to equip them with the knowledge to combat racial discrimination.

Recalling that the International Day commemorated the Sharpeville massacre, a horrific killing of 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, United Nations Secretary‑General António Guterres said xenophobia, racism and intolerance continued in countries and communities around the world, pointing at the egregious treatment of the Rohingya community in Myanmar and an alarming resurgence of far right political parties and neo‑Nazi views.

Calling on all people to consider how they could better promote tolerance, inclusion and respect for diversity, he said messages of hatred and the concept of “us” and “them” must be eliminated.  “Let us keep in mind the grave consequences of such thinking — discrimination, slavery and genocide,” he stressed. “We must always stand up to leaders who spread their toxic vision of racial superiority, especially when they couch it in sanitized language to denigrate migrants and foreigners.”

Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said deep‑seated structural racism continued against indigenous peoples, people of African descent and others.  “Racial discrimination is not only a matter of individual injustice,” he pointed out, adding that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly warned that if rights were not protected, conflict might follow.

Gay McDougall, a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said that racist hate rhetoric was tolerated by political leaders at the highest levels, which had led to uninhibited expressions of hatred, including targeting of the most disadvantaged segments of the population.  “Only a few years ago it would have been unthinkable that our Committee would have reason to adopt a statement as we did last November, denouncing the auctioning of black men, migrants, into slavery when they sought refuge in Libya,” she said, highlighting the importance of education to teach respect for diversity, as “one of the most important tools for inclusion”.

Member States shared their concerns and efforts to foster change.  The representative of South Africa said “the world community, particularly children and youth, need to be taught that racism is a vice and not a value.”  In honour of the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, the South African Government had embarked on a year‑long programme to celebrate his life and legacy, both domestically and internationally.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Gambia (for the African Group), Qatar (for the Asia‑Pacific Group), Israel (for the Group of Western European and other States), Uruguay (for Latin American and Caribbean States), Belarus (for Eastern European States Group), Cuba, Turkey and Nigeria.

Opening Remarks

ODO TEVI (Vanuatu), Vice‑President of the General Assembly, speaking on behalf of the President of the General Assembly, said that the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was a reminder of how far the world had come.  Apartheid laws were a thing of the past; such a system must never take root again anywhere in the world.  The international community was still dealing with the fallout from racist laws, policies and thinking.  Today’s meeting presented an opportunity to recommit to the permanent elimination of racial discrimination.  Nelson Mandela had taught tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity.  The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — human dignity and worth, equality and non‑discrimination — were values the world must live by.  The United Nations had the tools to combat racial discrimination.  Those words must be acted on.

“We need to stand up for the young man overlooked in a job interview because of the colour of his skin; for the girl excluded from society or suffering violence only because of her race,” he said.  Ill‑treatment of people based on their race did not occur in silos.  It affected every aspect of life, from development to peace and human rights for all.  Today’s debate highlighted the importance of dialogue and multilateral engagement in combating racism.  It was fitting for the debate to take place in the General Assembly Hall in which everyone was equal.  Dialogue went hand in hand with multilateralism.  “We should speak openly about racial discrimination.  And more importantly, we must listen to our neighbours and friends in this global village to hear the stories that reveal our common humanity, despite our own uniqueness and differences,” he said.  The dialogue must include children and young people in order to equip them with the knowledge to combat racial discrimination.

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, recalled that the International Day commemorated the Sharpeville massacre, a horrific killing of 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid in South Africa.  That system had thankfully been resigned to history, but the massacre’s history lived on.  Today, xenophobia, racism and intolerance continued in countries and communities around the world, he said, noting that the egregious treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was one stark and tragic example.  “It is time that all nations and all people live up to the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he stressed, noting that, while considerable progress had been made since that text’s adoption 70 years ago, it was clear that its words were not yet matched by facts on the ground.  People all over the world still endured constraints on, or total denial of, their human rights.  Gender inequality remained a pressing issue, with untold numbers of women and girls facing daily insecurity, violence and violations of their rights.

Also citing an alarming rise in xenophobia, racism and intolerance — including anti‑Semitism and anti‑Muslim hatred — he said far-right political parties and neo‑Nazi views were similarly seeing a resurgence.  Meanwhile, refugees and migrants were systematically denied their rights and unjustly and falsely vilified as threats to the societies they sought to join.  Calling on all people to consider how they could better promote tolerance, inclusion and respect for diversity, he said messages of hatred and the concept of “us” and “them” must be eliminated.  “Let us keep in mind the grave consequences of such thinking — discrimination, slavery and genocide,” he stressed, adding:  “We must always stand up to leaders who spread their toxic vision of racial superiority, especially when they couch it in sanitized language to denigrate migrants and foreigners.”

ZEID RA’AD ZEID AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recalled that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which celebrated its seventieth anniversary in 2018 — began with the clear statement that all human beings were born free and equal in both dignity and rights.  Similarly, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination declared any doctrine based on racial differentiation to be “scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous”.  Those texts had helped millions of people to at last obtain freedom from violence, injustice and impoverishment based on the repugnant idea that there were “lesser races” of human beings.  Nevertheless, today xenophobia and discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic or national origin or religion were rising to acutely disturbing levels, promoted — for political profit — by some leaders.  Hatred was directed against migrants, Muslim communities were stereotyped and anti‑Semitism was again on the rise.  Meanwhile, deep‑seated structural racism continued against indigenous peoples, people of African descent and others.

“Racial discrimination is not only a matter of individual injustice,” he stressed, adding that the Declaration clearly warned that if rights were not protected, conflict might follow.  Experience had repeatedly demonstrated that discrimination, intolerance, prejudice and scapegoating not only led to disastrous splintering within societies, but also generated threats to regional peace and led to conflict.  Urging all decision‑makers to reflect on their commitments to the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, which reaffirmed the importance of inclusive societies, he also called on them to embrace diversity as “the great marker of strong societies” where every individual was empowered to contribute her full participation.  “We can push back against the forces of hatred, bigotry and violence” and live up to the promises of inclusion which lay at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, he concluded.

TENDAYI ACHIUME, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, stressed that “globally, racial equality is under attack”.  Vile discourses of explicit hatred and ideologies of racial superiority had moved from the fringe to the mainstream, with bigotry fueling human rights violations and extreme violence against minorities, refugees, migrants, stateless persons and those internally displaced.  Underlining its particular impact on women as well as sexual and gender diverse populations, she declared:  “From crowds of youths marching to neo‑Nazi chants in Charlottesville, Warsaw and Berlin, to the racist and xenophobic attitudes of politicians in the highest levels of office worldwide […] the assault on the human dignity of millions around the world has reached alarming proportions.”  The recent assassination of Marielle Franco, the powerful and courageous Afro‑Brazilian anti‑racism activist was just one example of the phenomenon, she said, emphasizing that the International Day should serve as a reminder that the problem of racism remained larger and deeper than the shocking manifestations witnessed daily in media and mainstream political discourse.

Indeed, she said, civil society organizations, social movements, activists and the entire United Nations system must devote renewed energy and attention to tackling the structural drivers of racial inequality, including — as recognized in the 2001 Durban Declaration — those rooted in the historic legacy of slavery and colonialism.  Urgent attention should also be paid to the structural economic, political and legal conditions that facilitated misplaced racial resentment and xenophobic scapegoating.  That meant taking seriously the grievances and economic marginalization of those that had been most harmed by globalized neoliberal policies that protected capital and neglected labour, and whose austerity measures had impoverished many communities that did not benefit from the networks of advantage benefiting the global elite.  Warning against short‑sighted national policies, she stressed that human rights campaigns promoting cohesion in the broader context of escalating migration restrictions would not work.  It was incumbent on States — including through the current negotiations on a global compact for migration and on refugees, respectively — to provide legal pathways for migration and take other concrete steps to create frameworks that prioritized substantive equality for all people.

“There should be no compromises in the pursuit of racial equality today,” she continued, emphasizing that the world could not afford to ignore any dimension of the problem.  Extremism and systemic racial exclusion threatened not only the specific groups they targeted but also the very political and legal foundations of States.  In that current alarming context, she said she had decided to address the impact of populist nationalism on racial equality and related human rights concerns in her first report to the Assembly, to be presented in October.  Similarly, her first report to the Human Rights Council in June would address the ways in which citizenship, nationality and immigration laws and policy were today “high‑functioning means for racial and ethnic exclusion”, often targeting historically discriminated groups.  Urging States to recommit to the fundamental principles of human rights, and to engage with anti‑racism rights process holders in the United Nations system, she said that included accepting visits from Special Procedures mandate holders as well as substantive compliance with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s reporting process.

GAY MCDOUGALL, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said that despite the hard work to end racism, progress made over the past 50 years since the adoption of the Convention to end racial discrimination was increasingly jeopardized by threats from all parts of the globe.  A wide range of indicators confirmed the global rise of racial discrimination, racism and xenophobia.  Racist hate rhetoric was tolerated by political leaders at the highest levels, who had either failed to condemn it or who had adopted it as electoral platforms, which had “opened the floodgates” to the spread of the most damaging ideas of racial superiority and uninhibited expressions of hatred.  License had been given to radical white supremacy groups to reassert themselves into the mainstream public discourse.  Even in the world’s richest regions, the most disadvantaged segments of the population were increasingly portrayed as threats to the local economy, culture and values.  “Only a few years ago it would have been unthinkable that our Committee would have reason to adopt a statement as we did last November, denouncing the auctioning of black men, migrants, into slavery when they sought refuge in Libya,” she said.

Rohingya villagers were facing refoulment and genocide; indigenous peoples were robbed of ancestral lands; and people of African descent, the Roma and travellers faced daily discrimination.  She highlighted the importance of education to teach respect for diversity as one of the most important tools for inclusion.  The privatization of school systems and the resulting increase in segregation and reinforcement of inequality was worrisome.  Media, social media and information campaigns had an important role to play, and media professionals an important responsibility to encourage diversity.  The most difficult challenge was tackling the poverty and economic exclusion that was both a consequence and a cause of racial discrimination.  The Committee’s general recommendation number 32 on special measures and Sustainable Development Goal 10 represented both State commitments and tools that led the way to a more equal, inclusive and sustainable society.  The Committee had also repeatedly stressed the need to fully engage the affected groups, not only to enable them to vote but also to contribute to shaping the national agenda of the countries in which they lived.

Statements

MAMADOU TANGARA (Gambia), speaking on behalf of the African Group, underscored that the African continent had suffered grave violations of human rights as a result of racism, including the slave trade and apartheid.  The Group was concerned that even though those practices had been discontinued, they continued to be manifested in new forms, particularly in today’s new world of globalization.  The Group had identified substantive gaps in the Convention and four areas which required international attention:  xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti‑Semitism and incitement to hatred, including through media platforms.  The Group was determined to establish a permanent forum for people of African descent, he said, stressing that the living conditions of such people were very worrisome as a result of the racism they faced.  The United Nations human rights system faced the daunting task of ensuring that all the evils of racism were effectively combated.  He reiterated that to eradicate racism there must be greater intercultural and interfaith dialogue, which would put emphasis on the values that brought people together, rather than divided them.

ALYA AHMED SAIF AL-THANI (Qatar), speaking on behalf of the Asia‑Pacific Group, said that the countries of that region were distinguished by a wide range of diversity in terms of ethnicity, language, religion and culture.  The Group was concerned by the growing intolerance, hate, racial profiling and negative stereotyping based on people’s religion, language, culture or ethnicity.  That worrying trend required concrete actions driven by a strong political will to mobilize all efforts at the national, regional and international levels.  Education and awareness‑raising about different cultures and religions played a critical role in promoting tolerance, acceptance and respect for diversity.  The member States of the Group were working tirelessly to find ways to promote values of tolerance, acceptance of differences and spreading a culture of respect for diversity.

DANNY DANON (Israel), speaking on behalf of the Group of Western European and other States, said that racial discrimination was, and continued to be, one of the great ills of the world.  “We must actively condemn these terrible acts, and we must educate our children for diversity and tolerance if we truly want to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” he emphasized.  The implementation of the Convention on racial discrimination was not enough, and more must be done to work together with civil society groups that monitored situations and alerted Governments and the international community about instances of racism and racial discrimination.  Current trends demonstrated that racism was on the rise, including through an alarming increase in racially motivated violence propagated by hate speech, which was becoming increasingly more difficult to counter in an era of technological advancements.

LUIS HOMERO BERMÚDEZ ÁLVAREZ (Uruguay), speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States, said that all human beings were born free and equal in dignity and rights.  Any doctrine of racial superiority was scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and must be rejected.  Bigotry, discrimination and xenophobia constituted acts against international human rights norms and standards.  The Convention on racial discrimination gave States the legal basis to adopt all necessary measures for the elimination of racial discrimination in all its forms, yet States must go beyond its provisions and adopt a proactive approach to combat all forms of racial discrimination.  Development could not be sustainable when it was not enjoyed by all and when societies were stratified by nationality, race or gender.  The diversity of peoples of the Latin America and Caribbean region was its strength, and in that context, the Group was deeply concerned by political campaigns that were based on discrimination and racism.

VALENTIN RYBAKOV (Belarus), speaking on behalf of the Eastern European States Group, said that the Group remained committed to fighting against racism and racial discrimination, and reiterated the fundamental importance of ratifying and fully implementing the Convention.  It went without question that important progress had been made in the global fight against racism and racial discrimination in recent decades, yet the manifestations of racial discrimination still evident in some parts of the world remained alarming.  Fighting racism was still topical today and its impact should not be underestimated.  “Racism constitutes serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as impedes equal opportunity, devalues individuals, divides communities, breeds fear and spurs animosity between societies,” he stressed.  The Group emphasized the need to address with greater resolve and political will all forms and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

PITSO MONTWEDI (South Africa), aligning himself with the African Group, recalled the tragedy of Sharpsville in 1961 where 69 people died at the hands of the apartheid regime.  Racism flew in the face of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two core human rights Covenants.  In honour of the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, the South African Government had embarked on a year‑long programme to celebrate his life and legacy, both domestically and internationally.  “The world community, particularly children and youth, need to be taught that racism is a vice and not a value,” he said.  The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance remained the only instructive outcome document to confront the scourge of racism.  South Africa encouraged Member States who had not ratified the Convention on eliminating racial discrimination to do so.

ANAYANSI RODRÍGUEZ CAMEJO (Cuba) noted with deep concern that racism and xenophobia were growing and manifesting in new, sophisticated forms.  As the international community was engaging in important negotiation processes on global compacts for migrants and refugees, those people were increasingly targeted.  International cooperation was needed to fight racial discrimination, overcome stereotypes and respect human dignity regardless of national, ethnic or religious origin.  The root causes of racism, including underdevelopment, poverty and social exclusion, must be addressed.  Cuba continued to be willing to support and promote actions to implement the Durban Declaration, activities related to the International Decade for People of African Descent, and support the Working Group of Experts on that matter and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  Cubans were proud of the diverse origin of their nation, as expressed in the political will of the State and Government to fight racism and intolerance and implement non‑discriminatory socioeconomic policy.

GÜVEN BEGEÇ (Turkey) said his delegation was deeply concerned by the emergence of severe challenges for the effective implementation of the Convention, which was imperative to eliminate racism.  Migrants and other vulnerable groups continued to fall victim to unequal treatment, stereotyping, intolerance and hate crimes at alarming levels.  New forms of racism — such as xenophobic nationalism, anti‑Islam and anti‑Semitic sentiment — must be addressed, documented and reported.  When portrayed as isolated incidents, hostility and hate crimes against Muslims, migrant communities and vulnerable groups of society undermined efforts to address the root causes of the issue.  Politicians and media representatives had a responsibility to use a uniting rhetoric, especially in countries where discrimination occurred frequently.

ALEXANDER TEMITOPE ADEYEMI AJAYI (Nigeria), aligning himself with the statement of the African Group, said that as the home to the largest concentration of black men and women all over the world, Nigeria had demonstrated unwavering commitment to the elimination of racial discrimination.  There must be a renewed commitment to consolidate the successes witnessed through the abolition of the slave trade, colonialism and apartheid and ensure that their cascading effects were completely eliminated.  Nigeria supported the call for the establishment of a permanent forum for people of african descent as a way of providing strong support towards eliminating the contemporary manifestations of racial discrimination.

For information media. Not an official record.