Secretary-General Leads Commemoration of International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination

General Assembly of the United Nations

Alarmed at the sharp and disgraceful rise of xenophobia, anti-Muslim bigotry as well as attacks and violence targeting refugees, the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the President of the General Assembly were among many speakers calling today for unity to ensure dignity, justice and development for all, as the Assembly held a special meeting to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Addressing the Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that despite progress since 2001, racial profiling and violence against certain communities was on the rise. The current economic hardships and political opportunism were driving increased hostility towards minorities, as well as a surge of intolerance, racist views and hate-driven violence around the world.

“This is being manifested most directly in anti-refugee, anti-migrant and, in particular, anti-Muslim bigotry, attacks and violence,” he said. “Extreme right-wing political parties are fomenting divisiveness and dangerous myths,” he added. “Even once-centrist parties have hardened their views; once-moderate countries are seeing xenophobia rise sharply and once-sober voices have exploited fears in a dangerous echo of the darkest chapters of the last century. All of this increases the risk of societal fracture, instability and conflict.”

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights, agreed, noting that “migrants are becoming scapegoats for deeper problems”. To address the resurgence of racial discrimination and xenophobia in Europe and elsewhere, States must focus their attention on their obligation to protect the most vulnerable members of society. “We must be vigilant to ensure that stress factors such as rising unemployment are not displaced into racist harassment, abuse, discrimination and attacks,” he emphasized. “We must not condone the manipulation of such sentiments for political gains, or their manifestation in official policies.”

Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft (Denmark) said racism was still a painful reality, with ignorance, prejudice and fear running deep across the world more than 50 years after the General Assembly’s designation of 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. That date marked the day in 1960 when apartheid regime police had killed 69 unarmed and peaceful protesters in Sharpeville, South Africa.

Delivering the keynote address, Ahmed N. Reid, a member of the Human Rights Council’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, said racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance continued to pervade every corner of the global landscape. “I am a living example of racial profiling,” he said, adding that he was “feared and deemed suspicious” because of the colour of his skin. “I have been called the N-word, told to go back home; I have had my passport unduly scrutinized by airline personnel, harassed and humiliated by customs and immigration officials on my travels and followed around in supermarkets; the odds are that I will have these experiences again and again.”

Underlining the connection between racism and poverty, he said it was no coincidence that countries with a history of trade in enslaved Africans featured a demographic structure whereby the poorest groups disproportionately comprised racial or ethnic minorities. Faced with systemic discrimination, people of African descent were encountering an uphill battle in claiming their rights, which perpetuated multigenerational poverty. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development had equality and non-discrimination at its core, he said, emphasizing that Member States must ensure that future generations would live in a world free from racial discrimination and take positive actions to implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted in South Africa in 2001.

With the floor open, speakers expressed their support for confronting racism and ensuring equality for all, with some stressing that intolerance knew no borders, citing rising Nazism, anti-refugee movements and racism against minority groups.

Tuvako Manongi (United Republic of Tanzania), speaking for the African Group, welcomed national, regional and global progress on implementing the Durban Declaration, saying it remained the most comprehensive framework for combating racism, while underscoring the need to accelerate efforts to combat it.

Reflecting on that point, Ephraim Leshala Mminele (South Africa) pointed out that many Member States had reservations about key articles of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. There were gaps in international human rights law, and the proposed racial equality index on the situation of people of African descent had yet to be established, he noted. The 15-year anniversary of the Durban Declaration presented an opportune time for the world to unite and strengthen efforts to combat and eradicate all forms of contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance that had affected victims for far too long. “Let this be an opportunity to restore their human dignity and improve their quality of life,” he said.

In agreement was Walton Webson (Antigua and Barbuda), speaking for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC), who emphasized that among the Durban Declaration’s significant achievements was the assertion that slavery and the slave trade were crimes against humanity. He expressed hope that the International Decades for People of African Descent and for Latin American and Caribbean People of African Descent would blaze a trail towards a future free of racism.

Sylvie Lucas (Luxembourg), speaking for the Western European and Other States, said that, when marking the International Day, “let us learn from history and from previous mistakes, and let us not make the mistake to believe that history cannot repeat itself”, adding: “Let us remain vigilant.”

Also delivering statements were representatives of Indonesia (on behalf of the Asia-Pacific States), Azerbaijan (on behalf of the Eastern European States), Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation.


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