Eliminating Racial Discrimination: The Challenges of Prevention and Enforcement of Prohibition

"States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law", according to the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, notably in the enjoyment of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. State Parties shall also assure effective protection and remedies against any acts of racial discrimination.

Both the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaim the right of everyone to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms, without distinction to race, colour or national origin. The UN system and its specialized agencies, through various conventions and declarations, prohibited discrimination and disseminated information specifically addressing the issue and proposing solutions to the problem. However, despite these efforts, many individuals and groups belonging to the minority continue to experience various forms of discrimination, especially in countries with a dominant majority or a history of colonialism and occupation. As we prepare to celebrate the anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the General Assembly's adoption of the International Convention, prevention and enforcement of United Nations guidelines pertaining to racial discrimination are still a major challenge. As such, human rights for all are still violated in polities where racial discrimination persists.

Manifestation of racial discrimination varies in different contexts. For example, in countries like the United States, which have enacted prevention laws, changes in social norms have led some commentators to use phrases like "colour-blind racism"1 and "laissez-faire racism"2 to capture the challenges of preventing racial discrimination and enforcing laws. Racial discrimination is manifested also in practices generally thought to be relics of the past, such as race-based slavery, as in the case of the continuing enslavement of dark skinned people in contemporary Mauritania,3 as well as crimes against humanity or, as argued by some, the genocide committed in the Darfur region of the Sudan.

UN agencies, such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), have played a key role in organizing and mobilizing education and information relevant to the protection of all human rights. The OHCHR role in the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, is an example, where the discourses arising from the event and the participation of thousands of non-governmental organizations, youth groups and networks had an impact on millions of people. The contribution of UNESCO in formulating declarations and conventions -- such as the Declaration on Fundamental Principles concerning the Contribution to the Mass Media to Strengthening Peace and International Understanding, to the Promotion of Human Rights and to Countering Racialism, Apartheid and Incitement to War, adopted on 22 November 1978 -- reveals the United Nations role in fostering discourses of respect and dignity for all.

Specifically, Article 12 of the Declaration on the Prevention of Genocide, adopted on 11 March 2005 by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), "urges the international community to look at the need for a comprehensive understanding of the dimensions of genocide, including in the context of situations where economic globalization adversely affects disadvantaged communities, in particular indigenous peoples". This clearly indicates the recognition of the complex factors in facilitating discriminatory practices leading to genocide. It is worth noting that, whereas genocide is not always directly linked to racial discrimination, they are often interlinked, as demonstrated by the 2005 Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the Secretary-General.4 The Commission observed that genocide is often facilitated and supported by discriminatory laws and practices, or lack of effective enforcement of the principle of equality of persons, irrespective of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin. Given that the Convention calls on States to prohibit racial discrimination and enact laws to protect citizens, it is clear that genocidal activities can be linked to the Government's violations of human rights.

The Government of Sudan can, therefore, be held accountable for the estimated 1.65 million internally displaced persons in Darfur and the more than 200,000 refugees from Darfur in neighbouring Chad, especially since it was reported by the Commission of Inquiry that "the Government of the Sudan and the Janjaweed are responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law amounting to crimes under international law". It also reported: "Government forces and militias conducted indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement, throughout Darfur. These acts were conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, and therefore may amount to crimes against humanity. The extensive destruction and displacement have resulted in a loss of livelihood and means of survival for countless women, men and children. In addition to the large scale attacks, many people have been arrested and detained, and many have been held incommunicado for prolonged periods and tortured. The vast majority of the victims of all of these violations have been from the Fur, Zaghawa, Massalit, Jebel, Aranga and other so-called 'African' tribes."

This indicates the United Nations role in establishing the nature and extent of the problem in Darfur and its ability to demonstrate that this was borne out of racial discrimination, showing that it is an ongoing problem that needs the attention of the global community and civil society groups.

Exploring the importance of preventing and enforcing the prohibition of racial discrimination, as mandated by various UN instruments, can reveal the challenges of addressing persistent racial discrimination four decades after the Convention was adopted. Using the work of two authors, I shall illustrate here the social construction of race as means of generating discussions on racial discrimination and exposing racism as facile thinking. Consider "essentialist" formulation of race that views it as "a matter of innate characteristics, of which skin colour and other physical attributes provide only the most obvious and, in some respects, most superficial, indicators"5 and is, at least in part, the basis for enslavement in Mauritania today. The other extreme view is trivializing the category of race, arguing that since it is a social construction, race will disappear if we simply ignore it -- this ignores the ways in which race has deeply structured Western civilization for the last 500 years. It is important to consider the social construction of race in light of B. K. Obach's work detailing student responses to a course on racism.6 He observed that in the context of the United States, "students often think of race as a given biological fact based on established scientific distinctions, ideas that are strongly reified throughout society by the media, through government policy and by individuals who often embrace a racial identity". Challenging students to "think outside the box" by considering the origin of race as social is no doubt a mammoth task, but one that can be accomplished with tenacity and good pedagogy. A strategy offered by Obach is to acknowledge that the "socially constructed nature of racial categories can, in part, be demonstrated by reviewing historical developments in which the commonly used racial categories were established, in addition to showing the way in which those categories and their meanings have changed over time". He substantiated his work with Omi & Winnant,5 as well as Haney Lopez,7 to illustrate this. He noted the definition of Asian Indians as a case in point, observing that they "were determined by the courts to be non-white in 1909, white in 1910 and 1913, non-white in 1917, white again in 1919 and 1920, but non-white after 1923". Such conceptions can go a long way in exposing the fact that social relations, rather than some innate qualities, produce the hierarchical ideas regarding race.

It can be argued that UN efforts at improving response strategies for tackling racial discrimination markedly improved following the paradigm shift towards a more inclusive and proactive one, "taking into account that systematic discrimination, disregard or exclusion are often among the root causes of conflict". In the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, CERD noted the importance of decision-making in strengthening the capacity of the Committee "to detect and prevent at the earliest possible stage developments in racial discrimination that may lead to violent conflict and genocide". Thus, the Convention seeks to frame prevention as a critical component of efforts to address racial discrimination and genocide.

Although national actions for tackling racial discrimination and exclusion may exist, there is often an inadequate capacity to prevent cases of discrimination within the jurisdiction of the States with the worst track records. However, education and human rights as the main strategies by civil society organizations, which mobilize action and raise concerns regarding discrimination, can have an impact on both prevention and enforcement. Thus, it is necessary to investigate the "best practices" of institutional processes and models of race that are transformative and do not further marginalize racial minorities. This is best done by treating their experiences in ways that do not consider the role they must play in reporting instances of violation of their dignity.

The international community must now take heed of the complexity of the politics of race and how it fuels human rights abuses, including genocidal acts and crimes against humanity, such as those witnessed in Darfur and the slavery in Mauritania. What is clear is that, although there is ample evidence of the consequences of racial discrimination in opportunity structures, including political and cultural products, health outcomes, well-being and dignity, concrete actions to address "hidden abuses" remain inadequate.

It will take effective leadership within the various UN specialized agencies to prevent racial discrimination and bring to account groups and individuals responsible for human rights violations. Previous criticisms of the handling of situations that resulted in colossal rights abuses,8 such as those in Rwanda in 1994, should serve to motivate key individuals to recognize the need for prompt action. As The New York Times in March 2007 has noted regarding Darfur, "international leaders need to demonstrate that they can act as well as talk", in order to save lives and bolster confidence in the international system.


1 E. Bonilla-Silva & T.A. Forman, "I am not a racist but...": Mapping white college students' racial ideology in the USA. Discourse & Society 11 (2002): 50-85.
K. Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).
2 L. Bobo, J. Kluegel & R. Smith. "Laissez-faire Racism: The Crystallization of a Kinder, Gentler, Antiblack Ideology",
Racial Attitudes in the 1990s, ed. S. Tuch and J.K. Martin . (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997) 15-42.
3 K. Bales & J. Reitz, Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance Relating To Contemporary Forms of Slavery. (Background paper prepared by Free the Slaves, Washington D.C., 2003).
4 Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur. http://www.un.org/News/dh/sudan/com_inq_darfur.pdf
5 M. Omi & H. Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1994).
6 B.K. Obach, "Demonstrating the social construction of race", Teaching Sociology, 27.3 (1999): 252-57.
7 I.F. Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
8 S. Power, "Bystanders to genocide", The Atlantic Monthly, September 2001.