Combating Racism and Racial Discrimination in Europe

In today's world, contemporary forms of racism and racial discrimination are complex and disturbing. In Europe, these issues increasingly lie at the heart of political and social concerns. Faced with persistent expressions of racism and xenophobia, the Council of Europe Member States1 have, for several years now, been taking firm and sustained action to combat these trends.

Without making an exhaustive inventory of the situation and listing all the problems observed, we can outline a few broad categories in which racism and racial discrimination occur: day to day life in major areas, such as employment, education, housing and access to social services; human rights violations against members of Roma communities; hostile attitudes to and stigmatization of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers; increasingly widespread anti-Semitic incidents; intensification of expressions of Islamophobia; use of racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic arguments in political discourse; and a negative climate in public opinion, which plays a crucial part in the emergence of expressions of racism and intolerance in society. These trends, of course, vary in scale from one country to another, but are significant enough to be of concern.

To cope with this situation, European countries have devised responses at both national and European levels. The salient feature of the Council of Europe Member States' action over the past few years is the fact that they address the issues surrounding the fight against racism and racial discrimination from the perspective of protecting and promoting human rights. In other words, the right to be protected from racism and racial discrimination is first and foremost a fundamental right of all human beings.

When it comes to working out practical and viable long-term solutions to combat racism and racial discrimination, choices may differ from one country to another. All strategies in this respect should at least comprise measures in the areas of legislation, awareness-raising, education, positive action and participation. While legislation alone is not enough to combat racism and racial discrimination, the law is obviously a cornerstone. In Europe, the greatest advances in recent years have been made in the legal sphere. Many Member States have embarked on reforms to supplement their anti-discrimination legislation at a national level. This is a welcome development from the victims' point of view, given that appropriate legal measures to combat racial discrimination effectively, dissuasively and as satisfactorily as possible are of paramount importance. But enacting anti-discrimination legislation does not necessarily mean successfully ensuring equal rights for everyone in society. It is not enough to outlaw discrimination; we must also combat it by ensuring that anti-discrimination provisions are actually applied and put into practice. The same can be said for criminal law provisions prohibiting racist acts.

If all these provisions are to be effective, it is imperative that they be implemented by the authorities, including the police and the judiciary. They should not exist only on paper, but should comprise large-scale awareness campaigns directed at the general public and potential victims, as well as training for the appropriate officials. For this reason, it is important to set up an independent national body with the unique responsibility of fighting racism and racial discrimination;2 many Council of Europe Member States have taken steps to set up such bodies.

At the broader European level, the most significant advance in recent years has been the adoption of Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which came into force on 1 April 2005. The Protocol contains a general independent clause prohibiting discrimination. The fact that the European Court of Human Rights will be able to deal with individual applications in this area makes the Protocol a particularly useful instrument for combating racial discrimination. For the time being, however, only 35 of the 47 Council of Europe Member States have signed Protocol No. 12, and only 15 of them have ratified it.3 Lastly, Member States have taken a further step to combat racism and racial discrimination by setting up and bringing into operation the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) in 1994. ECRI, whose work is based on respect for human rights, aims to protect all persons on the territory of the Council of Europe Member States from racism and all forms of racial discrimination. It is made up of independent, impartial members, whose statutory activities include country by country monitoring of racism and racial discrimination, drawing up general policy recommendations and building awareness and disseminating information through its relations with civil society.4

One of the main achievements of ECRI is bringing about changes in law and its practice at national and European levels to counteract racism and intolerance more effectively.5 One of its major contributions is undoubtedly the fact that it has made people understand that "racism" and "racial discrimination" are changing concepts and now encompass acts targeting persons or groups, not only because of their colour or ethnic origin, but also because of their language, religion or nationality. The main prerequisite for effectively combating racism and racial discrimination is recognizing that these problems exist. ECRI has shed light on daily and widespread racism and racial discrimination at the pan-European level, which creates substantial and sometimes even insurmountable obstacles for many individuals.

In the immediate future, European Governments are faced with several challenges, two of which are very significant: enforcing action against racism and racial discrimination in an environment increasingly affected by the fight against terrorism; and addressing the issue of integration, which is widely debated in most European countries. Attention should be drawn to the ECRI General Policy Recommendation No. 8 on combating racism while fighting terrorism and to General Policy Recommendation No. 11, adopted on 29 June 2007, on combating racism and racial discrimination in policing. The latter contains a legal definition of racial profiling and asks Member States to clearly define and prohibit racial profiling by law. As racial profiling has increased and assumed new dimensions as part of the fight against terrorism, Recommendation No. 11 is a useful means of countering this specific form of racial discrimination. Regarding integration, it is essential to firmly underscore that the success of any integration strategy will essentially hinge on the importance it attaches to combating discrimination in general, particularly racial discrimination. The principle of non-discrimination and policies on the pursuit of equality are the necessary basis for achieving integration.

In the final analysis, encouraging signs at the national and European levels demonstrate that Governments and civil society are genuinely involved in fighting racism and racial discrimination in Europe. But the fight is far from won and advances are needed now more than ever to guide our countries and give practical effect and full meaning to the universal principle: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights".
 

Notes

1 The 47 Member States of the Council of Europe are Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom.

2 See ECRI General Policy Recommendation No. 2 on specialized bodies to combat racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance at the national level.

3 For more information on Protocol No. 12, see http://conventions.coe.int

4 For more information on ECRI and its work, see www.coe.int/ecri

5 See General Policy Recommendation No. 7 on national legislation to combat racism and racial discrimination.