49th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council
28 February-1st April 2022
Item 9 – Voices for Action against Racism
28 March 2022
By Amie Sillito / GICJ
The 48th Meeting of the 49th Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, on 28 March 2022, focused on racial discrimination and included a general debate comprised of delegates, NGOs and civil society organisations.
The general debate provided parallel responses, with the majority of delegates supporting the High Commissioner’s statement and calling for racial tolerance on a global scale. Many delegates called upon the international community to implement legislation which would address the structural causes of racism and tackle racial discrimination in an intensified manner. The issue of migration was also discussed during the debate and it was noted that many politicians continue to use migration as a political tool to enhance their position in the political arena. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, discussed the complex legacy of colonialism and noted that states must address their complex legacies in order to move towards a process of reconciliation and healing.
Various NGOs and civil society organisations expressed their concern over the heightened levels of racism during the COVID-19 pandemic and urged governments to fulfil their obligations under international law and conventions which they are party to, in order to eliminate racial discrimination. Concern was also raised over racial discrimination reported during the crisis in Ukraine where people of African descent have been denied refuge in neighbouring states due to their lack of visas.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) condemned all forms of discrimination and encouraged the adoption of legislation, by all states, to tackle discrimination. Critical race theory was touched upon and it was advised that this topic should be included within education systems to educate the youth and tackle stereotypes and prejudice. Racial privilege was also a topic of discussion to dismantle systemic racism and to abolish discrimination once and for all. States were also advised to critically examine their own social and political biases and the political message which was spread by policymakers and politicians.
The International Day for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination 2022 covers the theme of voices for action against racism. This year’s theme aims to highlight the importance of strengthening meaningful and safe public participation and representation in all areas of decision making to prevent and combat racial discrimination. It also focuses on reaffirming the importance of fully respecting the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly while also protecting civic space. Recognising the contribution of individuals and organisations that challenge racial discrimination and the challenges in which they face are also to be examined.
This year, the topic is concerned with encouraging people to strengthen and consolidate their voices against racism and to mobilise against all forms and manifestations of racial discrimination and injustice. This involves creating a safe environment for those who speak up against racial discrimination. The theme draws inspiration from the High Commissioner’s report on racial justice and the Agenda Towards Transformative Change for Racial Justice and Equality.
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually to commerate the lives of the 69 civilians killed in Sharpeville, South Africa, at the hands of the police during a peaceful demonstration against Apartheid pass laws in 1960. In 1979 the General Assembly adopted a programme of activities to be undertaken during the second half of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. Accordingly, the General Assembly decided that a week of solidarity for people struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on 21 March, would be observed annually in all states. Since this period, apartheid has been dismantled and racist laws and practices have been abolished in many countries and replaced with an international framework of legislation to fight racism, guided by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Convention is nearing universal ratification yet many people still face racial discrimination and injustice across the globe.
In September 2021 the United Nations General Assembly brought together world leaders for a meeting in New York to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action under the theme of Reparations, racial justice and equality for People of African Descent. In 2001 the World Conference against Racism produced the most authoritative and comprehensive programme for combatting racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance: the Durban Review Conference examined global progress made in overcoming racism and concluded that much remained to be achieved.
Statement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, delivered her opening statement on the debate on racial discrimination by praising the millions of voices around the world relentlessly and courageously fighting all forms of discrimination. She stated that these people confront immense barriers and often suffer various forms of abuse for the work they carry out. She underscored that minority groups are often in danger, simply because of the colour of their skin, their ethnic affiliation, religious belief or their original country of domicile.
The High Commissioner spoke of the murder of George Floyd which prompted mass protests all over the world and stated that the movement was testimony to the power of people and solidarity. She welcomed the considerable efforts that have been undertaken around the world to address racism and revealed that she was encouraged by the progress that has been made. However, millions of people today including African peoples, Asians, migrants, as well as ethnic and lingual minorities, continue to be confronted by racism, racial discrimination, inequality and exclusion. These forms of discrimination are often manifested in Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racial discrimination and intolerance.
Ms Bachelet highlighted that discrimination affects all aspects of our lives and prevents the universal fulfilment and enjoyment of human rights. She stated that her office has for a long time, expressed concern about harmful narratives against migrants and refugees. It was stated that hatred towards these groups is often created by political discourse or by the media. The High Commissioner went on to state that toxic narratives such as these, destroy the fabric of society and destabilise its core values. She emphasised that in times of peace, as well as conflict, politicians, the media and influential organisations have a responsibility to refrain from and prevent the incitement of hatred. Furthermore, discrimination and violence of any sort must be addressed and eradicated. The High Commissioner declared that society is moving too slowly towards racial tolerance and the abolition of all forms of discrimination. She emphasised that it is vital to accelerate the pace in the fight against racism and racial discrimination.
The High Commissioner referred to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as the United Nation’s blueprint to combat racism and racial discrimination, globally, and underscored that it remains more relevant than ever to guide society in the fight. She underscored that states need to honour their obligations under international law and make use of international instruments to help countries devise laws and policies which address all forms of racism. Ms Bachelet revealed that the newly established Permanent Forum on People of African Descent would start operating soon and will provide advisers on matters concerning people of African descent. She noted that last year she presented a four-point agenda to achieve transformative change for racial justice and equality to the Council and that states should take note of the agenda and implement her suggestions with haste.
It was stressed that states need to address their own complex legacies of racial discrimination and exclusion resulting from colonialism. Ms Bachelet averred that diversity is a strength and not a threat to society. She underscored that only by embracing our differences will we progress towards real change. Only by taking every voice into account will society advance towards sustainable human development, leaving no one behind. Ms Bachelet revealed that over 60 years ago in Sharpeville South Africa, the police open fired and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against Apartheid pass laws. She stated that the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a reminder of the horrors racial discrimination can cause. She concluded her statement by imploring states to stand together in solidarity with any and all victims of racial discrimination and never allow past racial atrocities to occur again.
Geneva, 28 March 2022- At the 48th meeting of the 49th Regular session of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights delivered her opening remarks regarding the debate on racial discrimination and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under Item 9 of the Agenda.
The president of the Human Rights Council opened the general debate by giving the floor to the High Commissioner to deliver her opening remarks. Following this, Mr Alikuleti recited a poem on the topic of racial discrimination entitled Justice is not Blind. The poem was well received by the Council and the debate proceeded with statements from various NGOs. One NGO, in particular, stated that racism is not a foreign concept to Asian and Pacific islander communities in the United States of America. It revealed that notions of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners have led to mass profiling and surveillance. It was underscored that, even before the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, these communities have been targeted with interpersonal attacks and governmental policies which scapegoat immigrant Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Data collected by various NGOs indicated that vulnerable groups such as women, young people and seniors reported experiencing anti-Asian hate incidents at alarming rates, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The topic of migrants and migration was then addressed by various NGOs, where it was noted that persons in positions of power often portray migrants as dangerous in order to deflect attention away from politically difficult issues including poverty, rising unemployment and the climate crisis. It was emphasised that a harmful narrative often develops which depicts migrants as a threat to national safety thereby limiting their opportunities for employment and creating resentment between locals and foreign nationals which subsequently leads to violent clashes. NGOs concluded that combating prejudice requires constant vigilance and if we unite against hatred and stand up against injustice, the root cause of discrimination can be challenged head on.
The delegate of Haiti, Ms Ann-Kathryne Lassegue, delivered a statement on behalf of the member states of the Caribbean community, whereby she reaffirmed the Caribbean Community and Commons Market’s (CARICOM) aversion to racism, racial discrimination and associated forms of discrimination. Ms Lassegue stated that the COVID-19 pandemic drastically exacerbated global inequality, encouraging racist and discriminatory behaviour towards ethnic minorities including people of African descent. CARICOM once again reaffirmed its commitment in favour of the Durban Declaration and its programme of action, 20 years after its adoption. The representative revealed that on the 8th of September 2021 the first Afro-Caribbean Summit took place involving numerous heads of state following which a decision was issued to consider 7 September as the Day of Africa and the Caribbean. She emphasised that this national holiday will allow citizens in the two regions to reaffirm their solidarity to the fight against all forms of discrimination.
Following the statement presented by Ms Lassegue the delegate for Canada, Ms Tamara Mawhinney, spoke on behalf of Australia and New Zealand. She underlined that racism, in all countries, persists as an affront to human dignity and an obstacle to the use and enjoyment of human rights, blocking the path to an inclusive world. It was noted that the global pandemic exacerbated disparities, emboldened extremists and fuelled racism. However, grass-root human rights movements are increasing in an effort to eliminate racism. Ms Mawhinney emphasised that each state must initiate anti-racism movements within their own countries. The delegate confirmed that Canada, New Zealand and Australia originated as central colonies on indigenous land and that false doctrines of racial superiority shaped past relations and policies, however today, the path of truth and reconciliation requires an uprooting of such prejudices. She averred that today, the three states are proud to function as multicultural societies and emphasised that they recognise that there is still much work to be done to eliminate the many forms of racial discrimination which persist in their societies. Ms Mawhinney concluded her statement by reaffirming the group of countries’ commitment to implementing the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, including the adoption of national action plans, and encouraged other states to do the same.
The representative of the European Union, Ms Marleen Steenbrugghe, emphasised the EU’s commitment to continuing the fight against racism in order to engender a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and equality prevail. The delegate revealed that during the second European anti-racism summit, the EU Commissioner highlighted the importance of looking beyond individual forms of racism. She stated that the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan 2020-2025 has developed initiatives to put this into practice and contains concrete proposals aimed inter-alia at better enforcing the EU legal framework, promoting fair policing, tackling under-reporting and ensuring the protection of victims of racial discrimination. The delegate underscored that the Council may not always agree on what sources to base policies on, however, that does not preclude the EU from remaining engaged and committed to the fight against all forms of intolerance. Ms Steenbrugghe affirmed that the EU remains determined to work both internally and externally to resolutely eliminate the scourge of racism from society.
UNICEF welcomed the panel discussion and reminded the Council that due to long standing inequalities, children continue to experience racial discrimination which is often compounded by other grounds of discrimination and manifested in various dimensions including increasing poverty levels, the lack of access to adequate health, housing, water and sanitation and a lack of access to quality education. Children are also impacted by ongoing racial profiling and criminalisation within the justice and law enforcement sectors which function alongside persistent impunity and insufficient forms of redress for victims, which has a severe impact on the realisation of children’s human rights. UNICEF welcomed the attention given to the voices of persons affected by racial discrimination and persons fighting racial discrimination. The representative highlighted the role children play in standing up against racism and she emphasised that they have the right to participate in public affairs as well as the right to freedom of expression, access to information and peaceful assembly. In her closing remarks, the representative stressed that UNICEF is committed to combatting discrimination in all its forms and that the organisation stands ready to support states in fulfilling their obligations under international law.
The delegate of Armenia revealed that since the 8th of March 2022, Azerbaijan cut gas supplies to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, attributable to their ethnic origins. The representative emphasised that this was a clear example of racial discrimination. She revealed that in the fall of 2020 Azerbaijan instigated a war against the peaceful population of Nagorno-Karabakh and described it as a textbook example of racially motivated crimes. The International Court of Justice recently ruled that Azerbaijan must take all necessary measures to prevent the incitement and promotion of racial and ethnic hatred targeted at persons of Armenian national and ethnic origin. The representative stated that Nagorno-Karabakh is currently facing another form of oppression and ethnic cleansing, accompanied by extreme racial rhetoric, uprooting centuries old hatred, prejudices and colonial narratives surrounding Armenia. She declared that opposition voices to Azerbaijan have been jailed or have been forced to flee the country, thus dissidents cannot be expected to protest the actions of their government.
NGOs and civil society organisations expressed concern over the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on inequality the world over. It was emphasised that the Council’s commitments to address equality are meaningless so long as countries continue to prioritise the profits of multinational corporations over the lives and wellbeing of people. The Ukrainian crisis was also highlighted as an example of the prevalent nature of racial discrimination as it was revealed that African students are being prevented from crossing the Ukrainian border in order to escape the conflict. It was noted that the prohibition against racial discrimination is a fundamental right which is applicable in all situations of conflict and peace. States were urged to uphold their commitment to ensuring fair treatment of all persons displaced during the conflict regardless of their immigration status by eliminating racial profiling and ensuring fair treatment fromstate agents.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) condemns all forms of discrimination and encourages states to adopt legislation which tackles racial discrimination at its root cause. Education is a powerful tool in the fight against racism and it is paramount that governments introduce educational programmes which incorporate critical race theory to tackle inequality and eliminate ignorance. It is also important to recognise and understand privilege in the context of race. Racial privilege appears across social, political, economic and cultural environments and using one’s own privilege to dismantle systemic racism is a step in the right direction to abolishing racial discrimination. States must examine their own social and political biases and consider their origins, whether these be political or social biases.
Both the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaim the right of everyone to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms, without distinction to race, colour or national origin. Global governments must live up to their obligations under international law in eliminating all forms of discrimination. Despite the global movement to tackle racism following the death of George Floyd, it is apparent that countries are becoming less united and more divided resulting in a polarised society comprised of extreme ideologies. It is essential that governments focus on uniting countries in spite of their differences as opposed to manipulating contrasting ideas to secure their political position.
Discrimination, Racism, Intolerance, Prejudice, Voices for Change, International Day for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, United Nations, Human Rights, GICJ, Geneva International Centre for Justice, Geneva4Justice, Justice