The UN's Long Campaign against Apartheid

UNESCO Courier, February 1992 | Go to article overview

The UN's Long Campaign against Apartheid


The United Nations has been in the forefront of the struggle against apartheid for over four decades. The General Assembly has condemned apartheid as a crime against humanity, and the Security Council, which has considered the question since 1960, has termed apartheid a crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind.

The United Nations has sought to help bring about a peaceful solution of the conflict by promoting concerted international action, including the isolation of South Africa diplomatically, economically and militarily, the development of international norms against apartheid and the provision of assistance to the victims of apartheid and their liberation movements.

The racial policies of South Africa were discussed at the very first United Nations General Assembly session in 1946, when India complained that the Government had enacted legislation which discriminated against South Africans of Indian origin. During the 1950s, as South Africa persisted in and intensified its policies of racial segregation, numerous resolutions concerning apartheid were adopted.

The Sharpeville massacre

In March 1960, sixty-nine people were killed and 180 wounded at Sharpeville, when South African police opened fire on peaceful, unarmed demonstrators protesting against the "pass laws". The "pass laws" required that all Africans carry "reference documents" which served as identification and as work and travel permits. The incident and its aftermath, which rocked South Africa, aroused world opinion and marked a turning point in deliberations on apartheid at the United Nations.

For the first time the matter was taken up by the Security Council, which on 1 April 1960 adopted by a resolution stating that a continuation of South Africa's racial policies might endanger international peace and security and calling upon the South African Government to abandon its policies of apartheid and racial discrimination. The General Assembly asked Member States to break off diplomatic relations with South Africa, boycott South African goods and refrain from all exports to South Africa, including the export of armaments. In 1962, it established a special body, known since 1974 as the Special Committee against Apartheid. The mandate of the Committee is to review all aspects of South Africa's policies of apartheid and the international repercussions of these policies.

The Committee quickly assumed an activist role in what the General Assembly in 1966 would formally designate as the "international campaign against apartheid". It has promoted sports, cultural, consumer and other boycotts and, with the Centre against Apartheid, established in 1976, has co-operated with Governments, intergovernmental organizations, religious leaders, student and youth movements and anti-apartheid groups in mobilizing international public opinion in support of Unite Nations resolutions against apartheid.

In a move to provide assistance to the victims of partheid, the General Assembly in 1965 established the United Nations Trust Fund for South Africa. The Fund is based on voluntary contributions from which grants are made to organizations for legal aid to persons persecuted under South Africa's repressive and discriminatory laws, relief to such persons and their dependents, and relief for refugees from South Africa. Two years later, the United Nations Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa (UNETPSA) was set up. One of its functions is to provide scholarships for higher education to disadvantaged students from South Africa and Namibia.

During the 1970s, continued efforts by the United Nations to persuade South Africa to abandon the system of apartheid were intensified. In 1973, the General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which came into force in 1976. The following year, the General Assembly barred the delegation of South Africa from participating in its work, and recommended the exclusion of South Africa from participation in all international organizations and conferences under United Nations auspices as long as the authorities continued to practice apartheid. …

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