Taking Steps against Racism
Geneva, Palais des Nations
21 March 2003
Discurso de abertura do dia internacional para a eliminação da discriminação racial em 21 de março de 2003
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Opening Statement by Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good afternoon. I would like to welcome you all to this panel discussion on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960 was a landmark in the history of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. I remember hearing about it when I was a schoolboy. I called on my teacher the following morning to explain to us how it could possibly have happened. Sharpeville was, I would say, the birth of my political conscience and of my sense of injustice. The events in Sharpeville began as a non-violent protest for the liberation of South Africa from the apartheid government. The “pass laws” required persons of colour to carry passes with them at all times. Protesting against the pass laws, African men left their passes home and marched to the nearest police station. In Sharpeville, the police opened fire and killed or injured large numbers of protesters. Since that fateful day, 21 March has become a symbol of the movement against racism worldwide.
If you permit me, I would like to make a few observations on the importance of the continuing struggle against racial discrimination, and the role of the United Nations, and more particularly my Office, in these efforts.
As many of you already know, I am a Brazilian. In Brazil, people of African descent and indigenous people, who make up a significant proportion of the population, face problems of social inequality and discrimination in a variety of manifestations that are very pronounced. The Government of Brazil is to be commended for having openly recognized the issue and for the considerable efforts it continues to make in addressing it.
My work with UNHCR took me to many duty stations in the field, where I saw with my own eyes how racial discrimination often lies at the root of violence and conflict. I know, based on personal experience, how serious the problem is, and I am committed, as High Commissioner, to making the combat against racism one of my most important priorities.
I would now like to recall important steps that have already been taken, particularly at the international level, to move forward in the struggle against racial discrimination.
International human rights instruments have put the issue of racial discrimination on the international agenda as a matter of law. The United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights both outlaw racial discrimination. In 1965, the General Assembly took the important step of adopting the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. This- Convention was the first human rights treaty to establish a monitoring body, and is now ratified by 168 States.
Over time there have been great advances in the international framework that protects the rights of those who are subject to discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin. During this panel discussion, you will hear more about the valuable work carried out by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, represented here by its Chairperson, Ambassador Ion Diaconu. The Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, who unfortunately could not be with us today, also contributes greatly to anti-racism efforts by undertaking country missions, investigating complaints and reporting regularly to the Commission on Human Rights.
Past and contemporary forms of racism were addressed at the World Conference against Racism held in South Africa. The Declaration and Programme of Action identify ways and means of preventing racism, in particular through educational and awareness-raising measures. Recommendations for remedial measures for victims of racism were adopted. The importance of elaborating national action plans against racism, and of ensuring better legal protection of victims of racism, were emphasized as well.
Allow me to draw your attention to two working groups that have been created by the Commission on Human Rights to implement the Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference. The Intergovernmental Working Group on the effective implementation of the Declaration and Programme of Action held its first session last January. We have invited Ambassador Vega to brief us on the discussions within the Working Group. The Working Group of Experts on People of African descent has held two sessions since its establishment: one in November of last year and one this past February. We have invited Ambassador Kassanda to share with us the work in progress of the Working Group of Experts.
The Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference underline that the prime responsibility for combating racism lies with States. Some countries have already adopted national action plans against racism; many others are in the process of doing so. After three Decades to combat racial discrimination and three World Conferences against Racism, the time has really come to take concrete steps to alleviate the suffering of victims. One country that has taken numerous initiatives to combat racial discrimination and to promote respect for diversity is Switzerland. We are therefore grateful that Mr. Jean-Daniel Vigny, representative of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations Office in Geneva, has accepted our invitation to present us with a case-study of how one country has adopted new programmes and initiatives following the World Conference.
Although the primary responsibility for combating racism lies with States, the active involvement of international and non-governmental organizations, the media and civil society at large, is of paramount importance. Exactly one year ago, in this same room, my predecessor Mrs. Mary Robinson chaired a roundtable that gave the floor to young people from around the world. They presented keen grass-roots initiatives that young people were taking to combat racism and discrimination and exchanged views on how to strengthen cooperation among youth groups across boundaries and regions. Their enthusiasm inspired everyone to think about the difference she or he could make. This year, we will hear from civil society through the voice of Ms. Geneviève Gencianos, the International Coordinator of Migrants Rights International.
Talking about migrants, as many of you know, the issue of migrants was addressed at length in the Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference and the promotion and protection of the rights of migrants are essential elements of my Office’s efforts to move the anti-discrimination agenda forward. I would like to take the opportunity to welcome the entry into force of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and members of their families, which represents a big leap forward in the protection of the rights of migrants
Before I give the floor to our distinguished panelists, allow me to mention some of the initiatives that my Office has taken in order to advance the anti-discrimination agenda. Through the recently established Anti-Discrimination Unit, the Office has convened regional expert seminars in Mexico and Nairobi. Other expert seminars are scheduled later this year. Last month my Office hosted, together with UNESCO, a workshop in Paris, with the aim of developing an educational publication to combat racism and foster tolerance.
In addition to this the Anti-Discrimination Unit is working on a number of publications that will bring OHCHR’s anti-racism efforts to a broader audience. We are developing a popular publication of initiatives taken by a variety of actors to implement the Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference. This publication is in effect a user-friendly version of the official implementation reports to the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights, and is destined for the general public. In addition, we are developing a publication on good practices against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and up-dating an existing publication on the gender dimension of racial discrimination. In collaboration with UN bodies and specialized agencies, the Office will be publishing information flyers on health and racism, migrants and racism, and other specific aspects of discrimination. The Office will also, through a small grants scheme, provide financial support for projects by national human rights institutions and NGOs in the field of human rights education and awareness-raising. My Office and I personally remain highly committed to the struggle against racism.
Education, from the primary level, is something I believe will make a lasting difference. Racism, xenophobia, intolerance, new and insidious forms of anti-Semitism – this age-old demon — and more recently a new type of discrimination against and vilifying of Islam, must all be fought against. All can have devastating effects on our common civilization and on the stability and security of this planet. We must have the courage to admit that, at one point of time or another, these scourges have affected and will continue to affect all of us.