Confronting Racism

By Robinson, Mary | The World Today, August/September 2001 | Go to article overview

Confronting Racism


Robinson, Mary, The World Today


RACISM, XENOPHOBIA AND INTOLERANCE

Legalised racism in South Africa is long dead and the international community can reasonably claim some credit for its burial. But around the world racial discrimination lives in more subtle ways and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, points to the danger of denial.

WHEN DELEGATES LAST GATHERED for a world conference against racism, in Geneva in 1983, South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid and Nelson Mandela was still in prison. It is particularly appropriate then that representatives of all the member states of the United Nations and its specialised agencies will gather in Durban at the end of this month, for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Apartheid has been defeated. But the preparatory meetings for Durban have raised our awareness of the extensive ways in which racism and xenophobia still blight peoples' lives. Among the ugly examples in daily life which we hear about regularly in the media or which have become so routine as to hardly merit a mention are: assaults and killings on racist grounds; attacks on places of worship - churches, temples, synagogues or mosques; racism in the workplace; racist attitudes among law enforcement officers; racial profiling; discrimination in housing and access to social facilities... the list is long. These are the issues which governments must confront.

This first post-apartheid era conference has a broader agenda, addressing problems of xenophobia and intolerance. It offers a unique opportunity for the international community to deal with modern forms of racism and to devise improved strategies to combat it.

EXPECTATIONS

The preparatory process has already been very positive. It has encouraged a developing global alliance against racism and discrimination, linking human rights non-governmental organisations with women's groups, representatives of indigenous peoples, migrants and minorities such as the Roma in Europe, the Dalits in India and those of African descent in the Caribbean and Latin America. It has also created high expectations among victims of racism, discrimination, marginalisation and even invisibility, that this meeting will make a practical difference to their lives. It is at the cutting edge of human rights issues.

My hope is that it can mark a true breakthrough in our thinking about racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. It will not be easy. Every country has issues to address. At Durban, governments can demonstrate their recognition of this, their understanding that the causes and roots are deep, and their determination to do better.

The objective is threefold: to produce a declaration that recognises the damage caused by past expressions of racism and reflects a new global awareness of modern forms of racism and xenophobia; to agree a strong, practical programme of action to combat racism and to forge an alliance between governments and civil society that will carry the fight forward.

MESSAGES FROM THE REGIONS

We must keep in the forefront the victims of racism and racial discrimination who are looking for help to bring about real change in their lives. As I reflect on the past year of preparations, it is this human dimension which was present in distinctive ways at all of the regional preparatory meetings.

In Strasbourg the chief focus was on the big increase in the movement of people from poor countries to rich, developed ones. Many who come to Europe receive a cold or even hostile reception, indeed, are hardly treated as human beings. Racism and xenophobia have become commonplace.

In some ways the problem is the same as ever: hatred based on fear - fear of economic competition, fear of loss of identity. In other respects, the patterns of modern racism are worryingly different with racial attacks in countries enjoying economic prosperity and racism appearing in parts of Europe where it had not been before.

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