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Opinion

Let's Fight Racism

In Jackson, Mississippi last June, a group of white teenagers targets a 49-year old black man. First, they savagely beat him. Then they run over their victim with a pick-up truck and kill him. The reason for such brutality? According to the prosecutors involved in the case, the teenagers had been on a mission to “find and hurt a black person”. The incident was reportedly caught on video surveillance footage, which chillingly chronicled the different phases of the attack.

To some this incident represents a tragic reminder that in the city where civil rights movement’s icon Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1962, racism dies hard. Yet, this case is only one of the many instances of racist violence that are perpetrated every day in all parts of the world. 

Shamefully, racism, intolerance and discrimination remain among the most pressing issues of our time. Despite decades of advocacy, despite the efforts of many groups and many nations, despite ample evidence of racism’s terrible toll — racism persists. No society is immune, large or small, rich or poor.

On September 22, world leaders will have a high profile opportunity to galvanize the fight against racism as they meet to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

The DDPA was adopted by consensus at the 2001 World Conference against racism. It encompassed a comprehensive framework to address racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance as persistent features of our times. Member States agreed to combat xenophobia, discrimination against migrants, indigenous persons, Roma, afro-descendants and discrimination on the basis of descent.

States reviewed the path set forth by the DDPA in 2009 and reinvigorated and expanded their pledges in a document that strengthened the anti-racism agenda. At that time, they reaffirmed the need to place the discussion within the principled and balanced area to which such discussion belongs, that is, within the context of international human rights law.

In many countries, the framework and process set forth by the DDPA have been instrumental in improving conditions for many vulnerable groups. But implementation of commitments is still erratic and far from satisfactory.

Globalization, it must be acknowledged, is said to have heightened the challenge of ensuring mutual respect for and by people of diverse backgrounds in increasingly multicultural societies.

We see intolerance emerging in new forms such as human trafficking, whose victims tend to be women and children of low socio-economic status. Refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers and undocumented immigrants are increasingly being stigmatized if not criminalized. Xenophobia is on the rise.

At its worst and when used to serve the purposes of supremacist political agendas, the manipulation of perceptions of diversity has stoked protracted armed conflicts, as well as the sudden flaring up of violent communal strife.

As a former judge and President of the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, I have learned first- hand how communities can be annihilated by hatred. But I have also come across magnificent acts of bravery. One episode is deeply etched in my memory. It occurred in north-western Rwanda when Hutu gunmen attacked a school and ordered students to separate into groups of ethnic Hutu or Tutsi. The students refused to identify their ethnicity in order not to betray their schoolmates. Seventeen girls were killed as a result of their courageous stand.

And I keep asking: How can we be worthy of these children? I believe that we must all work together to achieve an environment of respect for equality, justice and non-discrimination.

These imperatives were high on my mind when I went to Yad Vashem in the course of my visit to Israel last February. That visit offered a powerful reminder that racial hatred, crimes against humanity and genocide must never be tolerated, and that the Holocaust can never be forgotten. The DDPA contains such an appeal. It exhorted all of us to use the memory of the Holocaust as a transformative force and to put our collective appraisal and the legacy of the past to the service of a racism-free future for all.

A month later I visited Goree Island in Senegal, the infamous “door of no return” from which countless Africans were sent in chains to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. As I moved around the island where thousands of human beings were traded as commodities, it struck me that we can never really compensate the victims of racist crimes that scar the conscience of humanity.

The United Nations has dedicated this year to the people of African descent, but we can never render full justice to the millions of victims of prejudice and intolerance and to their descendants who still endure the legacy of discrimination. What we can do is at least ensure that their ordeal is a call for action to address the suffering of others today and in the future.

Navi Pillay is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.