The Long Road to Durban: The United Nations Role in Fighting Racism and Racial Discrimination

From its inception in 1945, the United Nations has led an unrelenting fight against racism and racial discrimination. The framework for the Organization's work in that area was the declaration in the preamble to its Charter on the question of human rights: "We the peoples of the United Nations determined . to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and . to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours."

Hardly had the ink dried on the Charter when the United Nations was called upon to live up to that declared intent by having to address the issue of racism, one of the first human rights questions to be dealt with by the world body.

On 22 June 1946, almost a year after the signing of the Charter and nine months after its coming into force, India drew the UN General Assembly's attention to the treatment of the people of Indian origin in South Africa and requested that the subject be placed on the Assembly's agenda of its first session. South Africa strongly objected to that request, asserting that under Article 2 of the UN Charter the matter was a purely domestic one, but the Assembly voted to retain the item.

On 7 December 1946, the debate on the Indian complaint began. In resolution 44 (I), its first on the subject, the Assembly affirmed that the treatment of Indians in South Africa should be in conformity with the UN Charter. However, in 1947, it failed to adopt any resolution on the matter for lack of a two-thirds majority, forcing India in 1948 to again request that the matter be brought before the Assembly. From that time and for the next 43 years, until 23 June 1994 when the item was removed from its agenda, the Assembly considered the matter annually, expanding it on 17 October 1952 to the study of the whole question of apartheid in South Africa. In December 1948, it gave substance to the declaration on human rights in the preamble to the Charter by adopting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a clear statement of common standards of behaviour for the entire world, in which it recognized that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". The Declaration, as well as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also adopted in December, opened the conscience of people worldwide to the need to work for the respect of those rights and freedoms. In March 1948, the UN Economic and Social Council had asked the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to collect and disseminate data concerning racial questions throughout the world and to prepare an educational campaign based on the information gathered.

Although the situation in South Africa was the catalyst for consideration of the issue of racism by the General Assembly and would dominate that debate for decades, it was not the only race-related issue to come before the world body. At its third session in 1948, the Soviet Union asked that the situation of the aboriginal populations, especially in the Americas, be studied within the general framework of the fight against racial discrimination and the protection of national minorities. In resolution 275 (III) of December 1948, the Assembly recommended that the situation of those populations and underdeveloped social groups of the States of the American continent be studied, at the request of the countries concerned.

In 1952, the Assembly widened consideration of the issue to include complaints by several Member States, organizations and individuals against racial discrimination in non-self-governing territories. Based on the annual reports of the UN Committee on Information, the Assembly also considered annually the question of racial discrimination in these territories. On 2 December 1950, under resolution 395 (V), it declared that "a policy of 'racial segregation' (apartheid) is necessarily based on doctrines of racial discrimination" and established a three-member United Nations Commission on the Racial Situation in the Union of South Africa. Meanwhile, dissatisfied by the pressure being brought to bear on it over its racial policies, South Africa withdrew in protest from membership in UNESCO, and from 27 November 1956 downgraded its representation at Assembly meetings. While the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was not binding on Member States, the Assembly, recognizing the necessity for firmer action, requested the Economic and Social Council, in resolution 1780 (XVII) of 7 December 1962, to ask the Commission on Human Rights to prepare a draft declaration and a draft convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. The entire UN system continued to put pressure on South Africa. The Security Council, in its resolution 123 (1960) of 1 April, called upon the Government to abandon its policies of apartheid and racial discrimination. It asked Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to make arrangements for the country to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. The Secretary-General visited South Africa in January 1961. On 29 June 1962, the International Labour Organization voted in favour of a resolution calling for South Africa's withdrawal from that Organization. In resolution 1761 (XII) of 1962, the Assembly requested Member States to take specific measures to bring about the abandonment of apartheid, including the breaking of diplomatic, trade and transport relations with South Africa. It also established the Special Committee on the Policies on Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa (later renamed the Special Committee against Apartheid). In 1968, the Assembly requested all States and organizations to "suspend cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime and with organizations or institutions" in the country. In November 1971, in resolution 2775D (XXVI), it called for a boycott of sports teams selected in violation of the Olympic principle of non-discrimination. The Security Council, for its part, adopted resolutions 181 (1963) and 182 (1963) imposing a mandatory arms embargo on South Africa.

Action against racism, racial discrimination, apartheid, Nazism and racial intolerance continued to intensify. On 20 November 1963, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, by which it "solemnly affirmed the necessity of speedily eliminating racial discrimination throughout the world, in all forms and manifestations, and of securing understanding of and respect for the dignity of the human person". On 21 December 1965, the Assembly unanimously adopted, under resolution 2106A (XX), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which described the nature of racial discrimination, set out ways States parties could eliminate it and established the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to oversee its implementation.

On 26 October 1966, by resolution 2142 (XXI), the Assembly proclaimed 21 March -- the anniversary of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa -- as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to be observed annually. On 11 December 1969, it designated 1971 as the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, and the ten-year period 1973-1983 as the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, and approved the Programme of Action for the Decade. On 30 November 1973, the Assembly designated apartheid as a crime by adopting the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which had been ratified or acceded to by 75 States or territories by December of that year.

However, the most controversial issue arising under the auspices of the Decade was the adoption on 10 November 1975 of resolution 3379 (XXX), which determined that "Zionism is a form of racial discrimination". As a consequence of that action, several States withdrew their support for the activities to be undertaken in the context of the Decade, including financial support for the convening of a world conference. That action notwithstanding, the First World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination was held in Geneva from 14 to 25 August 1978 and attended by 125 States and a number of international organizations and observers. The Conference adopted the Programme of Action to further the objectives of the Decade. The Programme was a further source of controversy as it contained a number of references unacceptable to many Member States and regional groupings, especially the provision condemning the "existing and increasing relations between the Zionist State of Israel and the racist regime of South Africa". It also referred to the "expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland, the practice of racial discrimination against them and their right to self- determination". There was also a growing connection between considering the question of racism and that of the self-determination of peoples. In Africa, in particular, these two issues were inseparable in relation not only to South Africa, but also to Namibia, Northern Rhodesia and other (Portuguese) territories.

Despite several concerted actions by UN bodies, the Special Committee on Apartheid reported in 1982 that 30 years after the General Assembly began consideration of the question of the race conflict in South Africa, the oppression had increased: more than 3 million blacks had been rooted out of their homes and 13 million arrested under the "pass laws", which restricted movement outside reserved areas, and the Government had sought to deprive 7 million persons of citizenship through its policy of Bantustans, or homelands confining blacks to certain "independent areas". Not only did the Assembly declare 1982 the International Year of Mobilization for Sanctions against South Africa but, with the Security Council, also appealed for the clemency for the leaders of the African National Congress sentenced to death. On 10 December 1985, the Assembly adopted and opened for signature the International Convention against Apartheid in Sports.

In 1983, the United Nations held in New York from 21 to 25 March the Second World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, to evaluate the work accomplished during the first Decade and chart new measures, where necessary. The Conference adopted a Declaration and Programme of Action, which the Assembly approved in resolution 38/14, setting the stage for the Second Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (1983-1993). In addition, based on the work of the Commission on Human Rights, it considered and adopted a resolution on measures to be taken against Nazi fascist and neo-fascist activities, as well as all other forms of totalitarian ideologies and practices based on racial intolerance, hatred and terror. However, in 1993, at the end of the Second Decade, many of the activities envisaged to implement the Programme of Action were not accomplished because of a lack of financial resources. The Assembly, in adopting the Third Decade (1993-2003), noted that despite the efforts of the international community, the principal objectives of the first two Decades had not been attained and that millions of people continued to be victims of racism, racial discrimination and apartheid. The Programme emphasized measures to be taken for the complete elimination of apartheid and support for the establishment of a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa. Notably absent from it were the issue of Zionism and reference to the Palestinian question, which had caused serious disagreements at the time of the adoption of the Second Decade. On 16 December 1991, in resolution 46/86, the Assembly voted to revoke the determination that Zionism was a form of racism and racial discrimination, as declared in 1975.

The vigorous and sustained efforts by the UN system and the international community bore fruit when in 1994 apartheid South Africa was transformed into a united, democratic and non-racial society, with the coming into force of the new interim constitution, which guaranteed universal adult suffrage to all South Africans. The country held its first democratic general elections in April, which were won by the African National Congress, whose leader, Nelson Mandela, became the first President of a new, non-racial South Africa. The question of the elimination of apartheid, which had been on the General Assembly's agenda since 1946, was removed and the Special Committee against Apartheid dissolved. The Security Council removed the mandatory arms embargo and ended all measures it had imposed against South Africa. It also terminated the mandate of the United Nations Mission in South Africa.

The end of apartheid in South Africa, however, was not the end of the consideration of racism by the United Nations. Through its Special Rapporteur, the world Organization continued to examine contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination and any form of discrimination against Blacks, Arabs and Muslims, xenophobia, Negrophobia, anti-Semitism and related intolerance, as well as governmental measures to overcome them. From 31 August to 8 September 2001, the third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was held in Durban, South Africa. The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action committed States to combating those forms of racism and also acknowledged that slavery and the slave trade were a crime against humanity and contributed to racism. The Programme was devoted to prevention, education and protection measures, including the establishment of a follow-up arrangement comprising a five-member panel of eminent independent experts to help implement the Declaration. In 2003, the Assembly closed the Third Decade and emphasized the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as a solid foundation for a broad-based consensus for further action to eliminate racism.

Despite the advancements made, the issue of racial discrimination continues to be a major preoccupation of the United Nations, especially its human rights bodies, as it seeks new ways to reverse the trend towards intolerance and to fight racial hatred as they manifest themselves in new ways.