Politicians and public figures are fuelling racist hatred and violence against minorities, using xenophobic expressions to inflame prejudice, independent experts warned the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates engaged them in interactive dialogues, held virtually, on the broad themes of racism and self‑determination.
Yanduan Li, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said that among those most affected are national and ethnic minorities, people of African descent, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Racist hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise, especially on social media, and have been amplified by the COVID‑19 pandemic. People of African descent, in particular, have been victims of racial profiling and excessive use of force by law enforcement, which — in some cases — has led to death.
On that point, Dominique Day, Chair of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, recalled the case of Breonna Taylor, describing how ongoing practices normalize systemic racism and habituate people to all sorts of violence against people of African descent. “Denial of the evidence of systemic racism before our eyes, and related impunity, frustrates urgent demands for justice and change,” she said. “The very legal process that claimed to exonerate the police officers who killed her actually failed to even consider criminal charges against them for her death.”
The Chairs were two of six Special Procedure Mandate Holders updating the Committee on their inquiries into questions of entrenched racism, xenophobia, and even the use of mercenaries in perpetrating human rights violations.
Joining them was Chris Kwaja, Chair of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, who said mercenaries are reportedly involved in extrajudicial killings and the recruitment of children. Their activities have gained ground worldwide, threatening the protection of civilians and international peace and security. “Third parties, particularly States, are utilizing mercenaries as a way to remotely influence armed conflicts abroad,” he asserted.
When the floor opened for comments and questions, a lively dialogue ensued, with Cuba’s representative accusing the United States of using mercenaries to destabilize the Governments of developing countries. Similarly, Venezuela’s delegate said her country was the victim of an interventionist operation by Washington, D.C., aimed at assassinating senior civil servants and establishing a colonial regime.
Azerbaijan’s delegate, meanwhile, stressed that Iran recruits mercenaries in the Middle East, and that Armenia is still not part of the United Nations Mercenary Convention. In response, Armenia’s representative said Azerbaijan had launched a planned attack with Turkey, involving mercenaries transported from the Middle East, mainly Turkish-controlled Syrian provinces.
Also making presentations today were Refiloe Litjobo, Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action; E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; and Taonga Mushayavanhu, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 3 November, to hold an interactive dialogue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Interactive Dialogues — Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia
As the Committee continued its broad focus on racism and self‑determination, it began the day with interactive dialogues featuring presentations by: Yanduan Li, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; Refiloe Litjobo, Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action; Chris Kwaja, Chair of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self‑determination; and Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary‑General for Human Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Ms. LI raised concerns over the rise of racist hate speech and hate crimes, noting that racist hate speech remains frequent in particular on the Internet and social media and has been exacerbated in the context of the COVID‑19 pandemic. “Politicians and public figures have continued to deliver xenophobic expressions that have [fuelled] racist hatred and violence against national and ethnic minorities, people of African descent and indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers,” she said. People of African descent, in particular, have been victims of racial profiling and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, which has led to death in some cases. She pointed to the impact of COVID‑19 on the most vulnerable, stressing that the pandemic has brought to the surface long‑standing inequalities faced by national and ethnic minorities. She urged States to ensure that the measures taken to address COVID‑19 comply fully with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
In the ensuing interactive dialogue, delegates shared national experiences and posed questions. The representative of Indonesia expressed concern over the rising incidence of xenophobia and racism, exacerbated by COVID‑19. It is disturbing that such behaviour is amplified by social media, a problem that Indonesia’s Government and civil society are working together to combat.
Along similar lines, an observer for the European Union expressed concern over the disproportionate impact of COVID‑19 on certain groups, notably in the provision of health care and enforcement of pandemic‑related restrictions. She called on all Member States to comply with their obligations and recognize the Committee’s competence under article 14 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In addition, she advocated for more frequent use of the simplified reporting procedure, not only in the case of overdue reports.
Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation pointed to deliberate discrimination against the Russian‑speaking minority in Ukraine, asking Ms. Li whether the early warning procedure had been triggered in Ukraine and Latvia, where the Russian‑speaking minority is being deprived of their right to learn in their own language. He drew attention to “cases of systemic discrimination of ethnic and national minorities in the area of education and the use of mother tongue in Ukraine and the Baltics”.
The representative of Mexico said the participation of civil society, indigenous peoples and people of African descent is vital for strengthening national efforts to implement the Convention. He welcomed the Committee’s preparation of a General Recommendation on preventing and combating racial profiling, asking Ms. Li about how artificial intelligence influences racial discrimination and racial profiling, and about how technology can be used as a tool for prevention.
Stressing the importance of universal ratification and implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the representative of Turkey expressed deep concern over the re‑emergence of extremist political currents and ideologies, especially across Europe, which translate into new forms of racism, anti‑Semitic movements and Islamophobia. Members of the Turkish community, especially in Europe, have been targets of these threats, she asserted.
Ms. LI, in response, emphasized the need for strong political commitment to fight the spread of hate speech on the Internet and social media. However, reporting of online hate speech is not easy, she said, equating the fight against hate speech with preserving the right to free expression. “Our Committee is just a monitoring, not an enforcement organ,” she stressed, adding that States have the obligation to implement the Convention. To this end, she called for cooperation between State Parties and the Committee.
Also speaking were representatives of Saudi Arabia, Germany, Algeria, United Arab Emirates and Syria.
Mr. LITJOBO presented the Working Group’s report, “Preparations for marking the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action” (document A/75/315), stressing that the COVID‑19 pandemic has disproportionately affected individuals and groups facing racial discrimination in their access to food, water, medical care, employment and education. The report underscores the importance of the Durban Declaration as a comprehensive framework for combating racism and racial discrimination at the international and national levels, but expresses concern at the lack of public knowledge about the content of the Declaration. This is a serious obstacle to generating political will for its implementation, and he called on Member States to convene an event to mark the Declaration’s twentieth anniversary during the General Assembly’s seventy‑sixth session. Raising awareness is “essential” to the fight against racism, he added.
Following the presentation, the representative of the Russian Federation pointed out that ideologies of racial and ethnic supremacy are becoming more attractive and widespread around the world. This hatred is espoused not only by right‑wing fascists, but also by political parties — including those with moderate platforms — that have “no compunction about flirting with such ideas”. He said that, in some States, racism is becoming systemic and the scope of discriminatory practices is expanding. Certain Western countries hide behind slogans about the freedom of speech while codifying inequality and refusing certain groups of people their own language and culture. He called on the international community to combat these trends.
Mr. LITJOBO then took the floor to thank delegates for their interest and participation in the Programme of Action, which he said is promoting racial equality. He encouraged Member States to fully implement the Durban Declaration as part of a holistic agenda to promote equality, justice, peace and the rule of law, and to use the momentum of the Declaration’s twentieth anniversary to mobilize political will around this issue.
Use of Mercenaries
Mr. KWAJA, presenting the Working Group’s report on the evolving forms, trends and manifestations of mercenaries and mercenary‑related activities, stressed that mercenary activities worldwide have gained ground recently, threatening human rights, the protection of civilians and international peace and security. Mercenaries and related actors intensify and prolong conflicts, and are reportedly involved in such crimes as extrajudicial killings and recruitment of children. He noted there are considerable gaps in understanding how these actors have adapted to contemporary conflict realities, how they are used, and the human rights risks and impacts of their activities. This is partly due to the disconnect between the reality on the ground and the applicable international legal framework on mercenaries. Also, he said the political connotations often associated with the term “mercenary” reduce discussions to debates about whether or not an actor meets the strict international legal definition.
He identified five broad categories of actors that generate mercenary‑related activities, including foreign fighters and nationals contracted into State security services, private military and security companies and their personnel, and cyber mercenaries. Among the key findings, he noted a rise in non‑international armed conflicts and the proliferation of non‑State armed actors. These developments both increase the prospective client base for private combat and make it more challenging to ascribe international legal obligations and attribute responsibility for violations. Third parties, particularly States, are also using mercenary personnel as a way to remotely influence armed conflicts abroad. Other private actors have also profited from new technologies such as drones and are developing new methods of warfare, including cyber capabilities and high‑tech weapons systems. He therefore cautioned States against outsourcing activities that amount to direct participation in hostilities and to prohibit the provision of for‑profit services by private individuals and companies.
In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates denounced interference by foreign States in their affairs, with Cuba’s representative noting the United States uses mercenaries to destabilize the Governments of developing countries and impede human rights, in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations. Similarly, the representative of Venezuela said her country was the victim of an interventionist operation driven by the United States, aiming to assassinate high‑level civil servants and establish a colonial regime.
The representative of Azerbaijan meanwhile said Iran recruits mercenaries in the Middle East, and that Armenia is still not part of the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries — also known as the United Nations Mercenary Convention. In response, Armenia’s delegate said Azerbaijan had unfortunately launched a pre‑planned attack with Turkey, involving mercenaries transported from the Middle East, mainly Turkish‑controlled Syrian provinces. He asked what mechanisms the Working Group has at its disposal to monitor and document the transport of mercenaries.
While sharing some of the Working Group’s concerns, an observer for the European Union expressed confusion over the extension of the Working Group’s mandate into the private security context, despite the term “mercenary” having a clear definition under international human rights law. India’s representative asked the Chair how States and the international community can counter the misuse of technologies.
Mr. KWAJA, noting the “huge reaction” to the report, responded to India’s delegate that the Working Group will be looking into cyberterrorism, the use of technology and its devastating effects. Addressing several delegations, he stressed that the only escape route for mercenaries today is through State protection, and he urged Governments to be more proactive in dealing with these actions. He noted that the United Nations Mercenary Convention is 30 years old but still not a legally binding document. As the opaque nature of mercenary recruitment creates a huge challenge, he called on Member States to allow country visits and collection of evidence. He commended the “welcome development” of all parties to the conflict in Libya agreeing on the departure of all mercenaries within three months.
Also speaking were representatives of the Russian Federation, Turkey and Colombia.
Ms. BRANDS KEHRIS, presenting three reports of the Secretary‑General, said the first — covering the International Decade for People of African Descent (document A/75/363) — describes the experience of children and young people of African descent who face racial discrimination. It highlights how the COVID‑19 pandemic has magnified existing patterns of discrimination and provides examples of promising practices for realizing their rights. The second report (document A/75/561) contains recommendations for ending racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, highlighting the disproportionate impact of COVID‑19 on racial and ethnic minorities, which has laid bare the structural inequalities they face in accessing health care and health testing. The third report focuses on universal realization of the right to self‑determination, and summarizes the main developments within United Nations organs to that end.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates welcomed the Assistant Secretary‑General’s efforts to end reprisals against civil society and human rights defenders, with the representative of Lithuania stressing that the United Nations deserves the trust of civil society and must promote its inclusion. She asked about ways for the international community to encourage the inclusion of civil society, especially in States where human rights are deteriorating, as in Belarus. She also wondered how the United Nations can better protect journalists and media workers.
In a similar vein, an observer for the European Union welcomed the focus on reprisals faced by civil society and human rights defenders, including when they engage with the United Nations, which is part of a wider, disconcerting trend. Citing increased arrests and attacks against these individuals, including killings, he asked the Assistant Secretary‑General for proposals to improve civil society’s access to United Nations meetings, in particular, those of the Third Committee.
The representative of Latvia, aligning himself with the European Union, warned about the erosion of freedom of assembly and expression, both online and offline. Referring to the situation in Belarus, where there have been arbitrary detentions, violence against peaceful protesters and numerous cases of torture and sexual violence, he asked Ms. Brands Kehris what steps can be taken by the international community to ensure that human rights in Belarus are respected.
The representative of Algeria said that since its independence, her country has always supported the right to self‑determination, which is a “cardinal principal” of its foreign policy. She underlined the importance of eradicating colonialism, and asked about activities the OHCHR in New York plans to carry out to ensure that the right to self‑determination is mainstreamed throughout its mandate.
Meanwhile, the representative of India described social media as a platform for amplifying racial hatred and discrimination. “This trend, if unchecked, can challenge social cohesion,” he stressed, calling for a comprehensive framework to combat racism and xenophobia. India — a former colony — has been at the forefront in supporting the right of people to self‑determination.
Ms. BRANDS KEHRIS, in response, welcomed delegates’ remarks on the participation of civil society, especially in efforts to prevent reprisals. The protection of journalists is among her priorities, she said, calling for effective ways to address social media and online harassment. She also advocated for the freedom of media. On the United Nations budget and liquidity crisis, she recalled that human rights represents one of the Organization’s three pillars. Underresourcing this pillar, which comprises only 3.7 per cent of the overall budget, should alert everyone. “We should make sure that the support for human rights is maintained,” she asserted.
In the afternoon, the Committee continued its virtual interactive dialogues on the broad themes of racism and self‑determination, with presentations by: Taonga Mushayavanhu, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards; Dominique Day, Chair of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent; and E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
Mr. MUSHAYAVANHU detailed progress made by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the work of the legal expert consultation during its meetings in October 2020. During that meeting, legal experts considered the issues and possible elements to be included in a draft additional protocol to the International Convention, namely the dissemination of hate speech, racial cybercrime, all contemporary forms of discrimination based on religion or belief and preventive measures to combat racist and xenophobic discrimination. Although there was some disagreement over terminology, the discussion will help the Committee going forward. The Committee’s work is pertinent, given the “sad reality” that many people continue to be victims of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, he said, recalling the global protests sparked by the killing of unarmed African American George Floyd at the hands of police, and the acute toll that the COVID‑19 pandemic has taken on racial communities. Laws are needed to effectively fight intolerance, but he added that the Committee should also remain open to considering preventive measures that complement criminalization.
In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of Zimbabwe praised the Committee’s work in filling gaps in the International Convention and in providing new normative standards aimed at combating all forms of contemporary racism. Noting that COVID‑19 has exposed and highlighted inequalities that exist in and between societies, he called for mutual trust and unity in the Committee’s work and for full implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. He then asked the Chairperson-Rapporteur about the challenges the Committee is facing in executing its mandate, and what Member States could do to help in this regard.
An observer for the European Union differed on the question of lacunae in the International Convention, pointing to the lack of agreement or evidence to that effect, or that the instrument fails to address contemporary forms of racism. He stressed that the International Convention is and should remain the basis of all efforts to combat racism, as the persistent spread of intolerance across the world demonstrates that more must be done in this regard. He pressed the international community to focus on its full, effective implementation.
Mr. MUSHAYAVANHU, bookending the discussion, underscored that the missing link in the international community’s treatment of this topic is the political will to engage on these issues in an open and frank manner. He said that Member States can help the Committee’s work by engaging with it, calling for all to participate in the process and to share their views regarding the need for an additional protocol to the International Convention.
People of African Descent
Ms. DAY presented the report “COVID‑19, systemic racism and global protests” (document A/HRC/45/44), noting human rights remain “a dream deferred” for people of African descent, driving popular protests, uprisings and resistance. Although people of African descent disproportionately experience COVID‑19 infections, severity and mortality, law enforcement has failed to offer protection, instead targeting them violently and with impunity in enforcing COVID‑restrictions. It is vitally important for States to acknowledge that people of African descent remain among the most at-risk and in need of protection. Failure to appreciate these risks has facilitated racial disparities in the pandemic, with systemic racism at the heart of these lowered expectations, worse outcomes, and normalized violations of human rights.
Presenting reports following official country visits to Ecuador (A/HRC/45/44/Add.1) and Peru (A/HRC/45/44/Add.2), she welcomed Ecuador’s recognition of historic and structural racial discrimination faced by people of African descent. She expressed deep concern, however, at the activities of extractive industries, including the lack of monitoring and sanctions by the State, given the significant environmental harms impacting Afro‑Ecuadoreans. She noted that Afro‑Ecuadoreans comprise 40 per cent of Ecuadoreans living in poverty but only 7 per cent of the overall population. Turning to Peru, she acknowledged the Government’s historical apology to Afro‑Peruvians in 2009, asking forgiveness for abuses and discrimination perpetrated since the colonial period. However, poor implementation of the State’s antidiscrimination framework led to a “profound denial” of access to public administration, public goods and public services. While 60 per cent of Peruvians acknowledge racism against Afro-Peruvians, she noted that only 8 per cent of Peruvians see themselves as perpetuating racism. She called on Member States to make the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent operational so that it can begin its important work.
As people of African descent experience systemic racism that transcends borders, continents, and economic development contexts, she said it is time to address the lasting consequences of historical injustice. She described how ongoing practices normalize systemic racism and habituate people to all sorts of violence against people of African descent. “Denial of the evidence of systemic racism before our eyes, and related impunity, frustrates urgent demands for justice and change.” Citing the case of Breonna Taylor, she said “the very legal process that claimed to exonerate the police officers who killed her actually failed to even consider criminal charges against them for her death.”
When the floor opened for interactive dialogue, China’s delegate described examples of United States police forces’ mistreatment of African Americans as “shocking”, requiring urgent attention by the General Assembly, and also pointed to cases in the United Kingdom. An observer for the European Union asked Ms. Day to elaborate on best practices for involving African-descent youth in decision‑making, while Brazil’s delegate asked about the role of modalities in tackling systemic racism at all levels.
Ms. DAY responded that one way to employ the modalities of the Permanent Forum is to understand how the legacies of colonialism continue to populate the current mindset, and to confront them. It is crucial to create spaces for transnational colonial atrocities to be understood in their local contexts. In amplifying the voices of youth, she stressed the importance of adding complexity to “national truth”, and understanding that decisions on whose voices are deemed acceptable and “intellectual” are seen through a lens of institutional racism. Confronting racism includes rethinking the monuments and the curricula in societies, she added.
Also speaking was the representative of the Russian Federation.
Racial Discrimination and Emerging Digital Technologies
Ms. ACHIUME, presenting her report on racial and xenophobic discrimination, emerging digital technologies, and border and immigration enforcement (document A/75/329), called attention to the rise of “digital borders” — referring to borders whose infrastructure and processes increasingly rely on machine learning, automated algorithmic decision-making systems, predictive analytics and related digital technologies. These technologies are integrated into identification documents, facial recognition systems, aerial video surveillance drones, biometric databases and many other facets of enforcement. Governments and international organizations — including United Nations humanitarian, migrant and refugee agencies — are increasingly turning to digital border infrastructure, drawn by the efficiency of technology. There are also tremendous profits for the private sector. However, she warned of the “border industrial complex”, wherein the militarization and digitalization of border and immigration enforcement end up expanding an industry that results in gross violations against refugees, migrants, stateless persons and other related groups.
“Even where the adoption of digital technological innovation is motivated by good intentions, these innovations warrant significant scrutiny,” she said. She expressed concerns over the incitement of discrimination against refugees and migrants on social media platforms, as well as the risks of discrimination resulting from mandatory biometric data collection and mobile data extraction. While international human rights law is by no means a panacea, it can help in identifying and addressing the social harms of digital technologies.
Presenting the annual report on combating the glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and related intolerance, she said COVID‑19 has exposed interlinking crises hiding in plain sight — a public health disaster, along with ethnonationalist rhetoric and politics — laying bare how dangerous intolerance, racialized and religious suspicion and fear can be to the social fabric that sustains prosperous and safe communities. With populist regimes and extremists exploiting anxieties about the pandemic, it is clear that ethnonationalism affects the very structures that are supposed to promote and protect human rights. She highlighted the urgency of pandemic responses that ensure fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates underscored that no one should be denied their human rights on the basis of their race or ethnicity, with many advocating accountability for those who oppress others for such reasons.
The representative of the United States expressed grave concern over China’s State-sponsored campaign of human rights violations against ethnic and racial minority groups, prevalent in Xinjiang and Tibet. Reiterating her country’s commitment to achieving equality for all, she drew attention to George Floyd’s death, which sparked national reflection on long-standing issues around the relationship between law enforcement and African American communities. Quoting the United States Attorney General, she said: “The outrage about what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis is real and legitimate. Accountability for his death must be addressed through the regular process of our criminal justice system, both at the state and federal level. Justice will be served.”
Meanwhile, the representative of China said xenophobia is on the rise in the United States, where incidents similar to those involving George Floyd continue to occur. “These tragedies are far from isolated incidents,” he said. “They reveal the United States’ long-standing systemic racism, police brutality and social injustice.” There has been a notable increase in racial discrimination and xenophobia in the United States, he said, and “some political figures have politicized and stigmatized COVID‑19, and made groundless accusations against other countries.” Drawing attention to Washington, D.C.’s “failure to combat the pandemic”, he said people of African descent are suffering significantly higher rates of COVID‑related mortality than the rest of the population.
In a similar vein, the representative of Venezuela said the case of George Floyd is “just one of the thousands” in a country that “boasts of freedom” while stigmatizing people of African descent. Venezuela, on the other hand, for decades has welcomed migrants and refugees from Europe and the Middle East, including 5 million Colombians who have never suffered xenophobia, he said, denouncing the use of migration for political ends. There are Venezuelans who decided to cross borders for economic reasons, due to the unilateral coercive measures illegally imposed on his country, he explained, asking Ms. Achiume about the impact of such measures on racism and xenophobia.
The representative of Morocco underscored the crucial role of civil society and human rights defenders in promoting respect for human rights. She recalled Ms. Achiume’s visit to Morocco in 2018 and her praise for its efforts to fight discrimination.
The representative of the United Kingdom voiced concern over the secondary effects of the pandemic, which have led to an increase in anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. Reaffirming the United Kingdom’s commitment to combating all forms of hatred and to supporting Jewish communities and other groups targeted by hate crime, he asked about steps that can be taken to address intolerance.
Ms. ACHIUME, in response, underscored the need to apply measures taken to combat intolerance in the context of COVID‑19 to the broader scourge of racism and discrimination. Noting the imminent twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration, she called for increased United Nations support and resources dedicated to outreach and to ensuring that this celebration is visible. Turning to consultation in the context of the pandemic, she acknowledged the difficulty of connecting with the worst-impacted communities who often have the least capacity to access digital means of communication. Allowing for written submissions in this context is important, as is socially distant interaction to reach these groups in person. She also stressed that Islamophobia and the promotion of conspiracy theories is particularly damaging today because of the complicity of Government leaders. Greater regulation is necessary to curtail the dissemination of this type of content on social media, as what happens online is “an amplification of problems in the real world.” She called for better human rights regulation of these platforms, where binding legislation offers protection for racial justice activists that ethical guidelines currently do not.
Also speaking were representatives of Mexico, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Malaysia, Cuba, Qatar, India, Algeria, Armenia, Norway and Azerbaijan (also on behalf of the Non‑Aligned Movement), as well as an observer for the European Union.