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

By Arbour, Louise | UN Chronicle, September 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Arbour, Louise, UN Chronicle


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.

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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.

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