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|By Enuga S. Reddy-The United Nations (UN) has been concerned with the issue of racial discrimination since its inception. The UN General Assembly adopted on 19 November 1946 during its first session a resolution declaring that “it is in the higher interests of humanity to put an immediate end to religious and so-called racial persecution and discrimination,” and calling on “Governments and responsible authorities to conform both to the letter and to the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations, and to take the most prompt and energetic steps to that end”.
Racial discrimination became one of the main items on the United Nations agenda after African nations attained independence and after the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa on 21 March 1960 sensitised world opinion to the perils of apartheid and racial discrimination. In 1963, the Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which led to the International Convention in 1965. It proclaimed the International Year for Action to Combat Racial Discrimination in 1971 and the three Decades for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, starting in 1973, as well as the International Year of Mobilisation against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001.
The General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and the Commission on Human Rights have devoted thousands of meetings to the discussions on racial discrimination and adopted hundreds of resolutions. Other UN agencies, notably the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), have made significant contributions to the common effort.
Racial discrimination is now being condemned by all Governments, and racially discriminatory legislation has been abrogated by most Member States. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a body of independent experts monitoring the implementation of the International Convention, has had some success in persuading Governments to take further action. The progress made by these efforts should not be minimized.
Yet, the 2001 Durban Conference pointed out with grave concern that, despite all the efforts of the international community, countless human beings continued to be victims of racial discrimination. New developments worldwide, such as the greatly increased migration, have led to a resurgence of manifestations of racism. Xenophobia has also caused violent conflicts and even genocide.
Why is it that the international community, which achieved remarkable success in dealing with apartheid in South Africa, has been as yet unsuccessful in eliminating racial discrimination from Earth? And are there any further lessons to be learned from the struggle against apartheid? It must be recognised at the outset that apartheid was a unique case of blatant racism.
The National Party, which came to power in South Africa in 1948, made apartheid a State policy and espoused the vicious ideology that people of different racial origins could not live together in equality and harmony. Successive Governments reinforced the legacy of racist oppression against the non-white people-the indigenous Africans, people of Asian origin and of mixed descent — who constitute over 80 per cent of the population.
The liberation of South Africa from racist tyranny and the national reconciliation that followed were the result of the struggle of the South African people and the international action promoted by the United Nations for almost half a century. While the minority racist regime was replaced by a non-racial democratic Government, and the main racist laws abrogated in the process, the task of eliminating the vestiges of apartheid and its effects was left to the new Government.
At present, no government espouses racism, and the problem is not the enactment of new racist laws. The victims of oppression and racial discrimination are generally minorities or non-citizens. Racial discrimination in individual countries is seen in terms of human rights rather than as a threat to the peace. While United Nations declarations and resolutions have been adopted with unanimous support, a number of Governments have not shown the political will to combat age-old prejudices, traditional or customary inequities, or even violence against oppressed communities.
Politicians and political parties incite racial hostility, while public authorities and local officials ignore national legislation on racial equality. The oppressed communities continue to have little representation in police forces, the judiciary, the legislatures and other decision-making bodies. Governments are reluctant to complain about racial discrimination in other countries unless their own nationals are victimised. Hence, racist oppression in individual countries rarely appears on the agenda of major United Nations organs.
If the constraints of the United Nations as an organisation of Governments prove a hurdle, the initiative may perhaps be taken by individual Governments that recognise the grave dangers of racial discrimination and related ills. With their support, NGOs could launch an effective campaign, set up structures to monitor constantly all developments concerning racial discrimination and violence, and expose those who profit from or incite racism. A worldwide campaign can help the United Nations to find ways to consider the situation in individual countries and take more effective actions than mere appeals.
If complaints of violations of trade union rights can be considered by the ILO and the UN Economic and Social Council, there is no reason why the denial of rights of communities subjected to racial discrimination cannot be considered without any formal complaint by Member States. The Commission on Human Rights, responding to suggestions by African countries and other States, has taken the initiative to prepare studies on discrimination against people of African origin, which concerns a number of States.
It is perhaps timely for African, Caribbean and other States to call for effective procedures for action, as in the case of apartheid. It may be recalled that meaningful action followed the establishment of the Special Committee against Apartheid, with a mandate to promote international action and report, with recommendations, to the General Assembly and the Security Council. The experience of the Ad Hoc Working Group of experts, set up by the Commission to investigate and report on human rights violations in southern Africa, may also be an example in considering action on the plight of Roma and immigrants.
The elimination of racial discrimination, entrenched for centuries and reinforced by some recent developments, is not an easy task. It needs perseverance and determination, building on past achievements and developing new strategies as necessary. There must be a sense of urgency. The example of struggle against apartheid remains an inspiration for such an effort.
The above in an abridged presentation
About the author
Enuga S. Reddy is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General in charge of the Centre against Apartheid, which he directed from 1976 to 1984. He was also the first Principal Secretary of the Special Committee against Apartheid. Mr. Reddy has written extensively on the struggle for liberation in South Africa and on international solidarity with that struggle