Looking Beyond Durban: The Significance of Racial Discrimination on the International Human Rights Agenda

Resistance to discrimination goes back to the origin of the human rights concept. It was the rejection of differentiation of people on the basis of national, ethnic or social origin, religion and gender, as well as resistance against slavery, that marked the history of human rights. Since the creation of the United Nations, the international community adopted a comprehensive framework for eradicating racial discrimination, from the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. This framework expresses clearly the common agenda for the implementation of the twin principles of equality and non-discrimination.

In 2001 in Durban, South Africa, the international community organized the third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to respond to the emergence and continued occurrence of discrimination in its more subtle contemporary forms and manifestations. Participants drew attention to the historical and cultural depth of racism, including an acknowledgment of the major historical causes of racial discrimination. They evaluated and sought ways to address emerging and contemporary forms of racism, and agreed on the need for national action plans, tougher national legislations and more legal assistance to victims of racial discrimination. The importance of appropriate remedies and positive action for victims was underlined, and a wide variety of educational and awareness-raising measures were put forward. Measures to ensure equality in the fields of employment, health and the environment were also envisaged, together with actions to counter racism in the media, including on the Internet. All these elements were included in a comprehensive and action-oriented Declaration and Programme of Action that offer the international community a fully fledged pathway for combating discrimination and a framework for progress.

Still, despite a good legal framework and good guidance, the international community is far from defeating the evil of racism, which extends its tentacles in subtle and vicious ways. Unfortunately, there is plenty of easily available information documenting that the effectiveness of international standards and programmes leaves much to be desired. Data, such as those indicating that people of African descent, ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous people are over-represented among persons arrested or imprisoned and in the number of deaths in custody, provide some evidence of their limited impact.

We note with real concern the often too slow action by the police, the prosecutors and the judiciary in investigating and punishing acts of racial discrimination, which often leads to total or partial impunity for the perpetrators. We are also alerted to the frequent lack of accessible remedies for the victims to obtain redress and restore respect for their rights. Although the right to education is universally recognized, indigenous children, particularly girls, do not have adequate access to such education. Minority communities are targets of abuse in many parts of the world and are increasingly exposed to misguided counterterrorism measures. The multiple dimensions of discrimination, encompassing such grounds as gender, race and religion, also impose a heavy toll on migrants' rights. The interplay of these different grounds of discrimination generates mutually reinforcing patterns of exclusion, disadvantage and abuse affecting the full spectrum of public life, from conditions in the workplace to access to social services, justice, education, housing, health care and participation in decision-making processes. Underpinning all of these issues are ingrained suspicions against difference. Discrimination, exclusion and inequality reflect socially constructed identities and interests, which, depending on the circumstances, operate along the lines of sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. These continue to trigger all forms of prejudice. Racism and xenophobic views are dangerously acquiring renewed legitimacy and vigour when they are invoked to bolster reactionary political platforms that aim at inflaming public sentiments against migrants, asylum-seekers and persons belonging to minority groups.

The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance identified that a major cause of the resurgence of racist and xenophobic violence is intellectual and political resistance to multiculturalism and the conflict it has with old national identities. This rejection of diversity is a principal factor in the rise of racism and xenophobia and is manifested increasingly by intolerance, even repression, of cultural symbols and expressions that reveal the identity of various ethnic, cultural and religious communities. Of particular concern are the resurgence of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic rhetoric.

To eradicate these odious practices, it is imperative to correct the imbalances that affect marginalized and vulnerable groups through comprehensive interventions, which confront the multiple aspects that characterize exclusion, as well as by the means of reforms in the administration of justice to close the equality gaps. Social exclusion, in its broad terms, can be defined as the inability of an individual to participate in the basic political, social and economic functioning of the society in which he or she lives. Central to all of these areas is the problem of poverty that locks millions in a persistent cycle of exclusion and marginalization.

There is an urgent need to craft ways to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups in all political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society so as to further the realization of human rights, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. A rights-based approach is the guiding strategy towards the realization of full social inclusion. Human rights principles guide programming in all sectors -- from health, education and governance to nutrition, water and sanitation, HIV/AIDS, employment and labour relations, social and economic security. Social inclusion policies have a direct impact on people's well-being and should be instrumental in reducing poverty, promoting growth and enhancing social stability and cohesion. Stigma and discrimination must be countered through laws and positive measures. Firstly, it is key to have anti-discrimination legal frameworks, but it is also important to ensure the implementation of those instruments and the awareness of their existence. Secondly, and perhaps most significant, are actions to increase the voice and policy influence of excluded groups in the national agenda, to change stereotypes and prejudices, promote solidarity, social cohesion and a culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

Just as importantly, we must combat all forms of intolerance by celebrating the diversity and the differences that enrich the human family. But we must work to reduce the differences that are imposed rather than chosen, that speak of deprivation rather than fulfilment, and that fuel the xenophobic discourse about the relative merit of individuals based on stereotypical attributes attached to their race, religion or ethnicity. Above all, we must ensure that no legitimacy whatsoever is granted to public racist discourse. By promoting tolerance and better understanding between and among communities, education is moving our minds from bias and prejudice to respect and appreciation for other cultures, religions and traditions. Education is above all the greatest tool of empowerment and we should ensure that its full potential is made available to those who may be the targets of violent intolerance in part because of their powerlessness.

Other similar measures of empowerment require considered actions at the local, sometimes even grass-root, level. The protection of all minorities and the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees are particularly important in this context. Access to justice is critical. The rule of law institutions, including the administration of justice, must be particularly attentive to their own stereotypical assumptions and must question some of their practices that may have a discriminatory effect, even when free of discriminatory intent. We need a common approach to eradicate racial discrimination and we need a common agenda. Fortunately, we have one: the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action not only records a solemn commitment by States to work together, but also offers a functional common anti-racism agenda.

Member States bear the primary responsibility to ensure the effective implementation of the right to equality and non-discrimination. Their participation in developing the anti-discrimination agenda established by the 2001 World Conference has created expectations that can only be met by determined and cooperative action. It is by the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action that the true success of the Conference must be measured. To appraise such progress, the United Nations has called for a Durban Review Conference, which will be held in 2009.

The Review Conference should be a platform from which all relevant stakeholders, from Member States to civil society organizations, the United Nations and other international and regional organizations, have the opportunity to renew their determination and commitments to fight the scourge of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. It should be a forum for reflection on actions to effectively implement the anti-discrimination agenda. It should also be an opportunity for the international community to identify and address, one by one, the reasons why, in spite of good laws and programmes, we have not made substantial progress in the eradication of the practices generated by racial intolerance, and to adopt concrete and practical solutions to the problem.