While Apartheid ‘Lies Dead, Racism Lives On’, Says United Nations Chief, as General Assembly Observes Day for Eliminating Racial Discrimination
Noting with concern the situation regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID‑19) pandemic, the General Assembly adopted a decision today outlining protocols for delivering statements and presenting reports during plenary meetings in the remainder of its seventy-fifth session.
Without setting a precedent for future plenary meetings, the Assembly decided that where quarantine requirements or travel restrictions are in place, those invited to speak at a plenary meeting or present a report — and who are not a representative of a Member State or an observer delegation — may each submit a pre-recorded statement, which will be played in the General Assembly Hall.
It also decided that, in addition to the verbatim records of plenary meetings, the Assembly President will circulate a compilation document of statements delivered by means of pre-recorded statements at each of the formal plenary meetings, which will be attached to the verbatim records of the meeting.
The action was taken ahead of the Assembly’s commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed annually on the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.
In opening remarks, Volkan Bozkır (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, recalled that the International Day was created in 1966 — and that 55 years later, racial discrimination continues to exist. The past year has been a painful one for many people of African descent. Xenophobic and anti-Asian attacks and hate speech have also increased during the COVID-19 crisis, despite the Assembly’s affirmation in resolution 74/270 that “there is no place for any form of discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic”.
Noting that people of African descent often have unequal access to medical care and are vulnerable to higher rates of coronavirus infection and related mortality, he said that in some cases, they are also twice as likely to die as a result of COVID-19 than their peers. For those who recover, the cost of health care threatens to push them into poverty. And when related justice, housing and education systems fail people of African descent, the inequalities are perpetuated.
Recalling that 2021 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme for Action — adopted at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance — and also draws attention to the midterm review of the International Decade for People of African Descent, to be held in May, he said consultations will begin on the modalities, format and substantive procedural aspects of a permanent forum on people of African descent. He trusted that these deliberations would conclude soon to establish a platform for negotiating a draft United Nations declaration on the fundamental rights of people of African descent. “The onus is upon each of us, to uphold the fundamental human rights of everyone, everywhere,” he said. “Black Lives Matter.”
Secretary-General António Guterres likewise recalled the events in 1960 in Sharpeville, acknowledging that while apartheid “lies dead”, racism “lives on” today in all regions and societies. It is seen in the pervasive exclusion of people of African descent, endured by indigenous peoples, expressed in the repugnant views of white supremacists, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim sentiment, and in the abhorrent violence against Asians wrongly blamed for the introduction of COVID-19. It is also seen in the coding behind facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence.
“Our responsibility as global citizens is to eradicate it”, he affirmed, and to condemn it without qualification, including by “looking into our own hearts and minds” to ask if we are racist and what we must do to correct it. For its part, the United Nations in 2020 launched a system-wide discussion, engaging staff on issues including conscious and unconscious bias. “This is a responsibility we all share. It is a problem all of society must confront,” he insisted.
He stressed that the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action offers an opportunity to make an honest assessment of “where we stand and where we need to go.” It is time to acknowledge and repair longstanding wrongs — and to reverse their consequences. “We need greater political, cultural and economic investment in inclusivity and cohesion,” he asserted. He appealed to young people, leaders and educators in particular to help teach the world that all people are born equal.
“Racism violates everything we stand for and everything we do”, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a pre-recorded statement. The massive toll of COVID-19 on people of African descent, ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups was powered by decades of unequal health care and inadequate living conditions. “Generation upon generation of deprivation, discrimination and injustice shaped the fractures that the pandemic revealed, exploited and amplified,” she stressed. “And all of us have a responsibility to help mend [them].”
She said that the 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis triggered the Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution in June 2020 mandating her Office to prepare a report on systemic racism. Despite the heightened visibility around this issue — and many police reform initiatives and commissions — use of force violations and racial discrimination by law enforcement officials against people of African descent continue to occur. “This must stop”, she said. Those responsible for violations must be held to account, and measures of redress must be extended to victims and their families. She encouraged States need to “dig beneath the surface” to uncover the depth of discriminatory practices.
Uzodinma Iweala, author and Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Center, said that as an African, Nigerian and American man, it is painful to remember the 69 lives taken by police during the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. “For me, the most solemn aspect of commemorating this day […] is that [photographer] Ian Berry’s images capturing the tragedy of events on 21 March 1960 could easily be ones from around the world in 2020,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, and rising to a fever pitch in 2020, millions of people of all ethnicities, races, genders and ages took to streets around the world to proclaim that “Black Life and Black Lives Matter”, he said. And as they took those pleas to people sworn to protect them, they were violently attacked. The roots of racism cannot be fully acknowledged without understanding the ways in which police historically — and continuously — interact with people who are Black and Brown.
With inequitable treatment meted out to people of different races under the law, the alignment is to an idea — often unspoken but consistently expressed — that somehow, “the colour of your skin subjects you to inhumane treatment by a system within which you live”, he said. “If we do not act, racism will kill us all.”
To be sure, he said no act of fighting racism is too small. It happens in living rooms, coffee shops, workplaces and places of worship. It must also happen in the General Assembly Hall and throughout the United Nations. “Each one of us — every day, and every moment — we are confronted with the realities of speaking out against racism, standing with each other against hate, and living examples of love,” he said.
In other business, the Assembly elected the Philippines as a member of the Committee for Programme and Coordination, for a term of office beginning on 19 March 2021 and expiring on 31 December 2022. It also appointed Eileen Cronin (United States) and Carolina María Fernández Opazo (Mexico) to the Joint Inspection Unit for a five-year term, beginning on 1 January 2022 and expiring on 31 December 2026.
AMMO AZIZA BAROUD (Chad), speaking on behalf of the African States, urged countries to implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. All persons should have access to reparations to any damage caused by racism, discrimination and slavery, she said, stressing that it is essential to serve justice and eradicate racism and discrimination built under slavery and apartheid. She also affirmed the right to quality education, as it promotes mutual understanding and freedom of all. School curriculums should include the history of people of African descent. They are forced to migrate from their native land, face inadequate employment and are overrepresented in low-paying jobs. Women and girls of African descent are even more vulnerable. The International Decade is a historic opportunity to right the wrong and promote greater knowledge of the contribution by the people of African descent. They should be better empowered in entrepreneurship and have access to financial services. The United Nations must also address these matters within its own ranks and should seek to address gaps in staffing.
MAGZHAN ILYASSOV (Kazakhstan), speaking on behalf of the Group of Asian and Pacific States, said “racism kills us all”, condemning all forms of discrimination, racism, xenophobia, hate speech and other forms of intolerance. Expressing full commitment to the International Decade over the remaining five years, he said the region consists of 55 States, accounting for 56 per cent of the world’s population. He also called for measures to address existing national and international inequalities. In this regard, debt sustainability and relief measures are critical. The Group will engage in consultations towards the creation of a permanent forum on the people of African descent, with a possibility of setting a trust fund, and will remain a steady partner in this matter.
DIEGO PARY RODRÍGUEZ (Bolivia), speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that it is a priority of the United Nations to address racism and racial discrimination. Along with people of African descent, migrants and refugees are often the victims of intolerance. Reaffirming support for the International Decade, he stressed that diversity is essential to peace. Underscoring that women are disproportionately affected by intolerance, he said that the United Nations should accelerate efforts to achieve gender equality throughout their life cycle. Despite the efforts of States, millions of people around the world unfortunately continue to be the victims of intolerance, he said, calling on States to promote tolerance to create common space and share universal human values.
CRAIG JOHN HAWKE (New Zealand), speaking on behalf of the Group of Western European and Other States, said that 50 years after the adoption of the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, issues of racism and xenophobia are still prevalent across the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed social and political fractures within communities, as witnessed in racialized and discriminatory responses to fear. Most significantly, the effects of COVID-19 have had a disproportionate impact on indigenous peoples, as well as those belonging to other racialized, ethnic, religious or linguistic minority groups. Regarding this year’s theme, the Group acknowledges all those who have stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The commitment to change witnessed in the past year’s anti-racism protest movements is powerful. “We must build a future that promotes inclusion, diversity and dialogue,” he said.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States), acknowledging that today’s commemoration is a personal experience, said she is a person of African descent and a descendant of slaves, who grew up in the segregated South, where the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in her neighbourhood. “I know the ugly face of racism,” she said. “I have lived racism. I have experienced racism. I have survived racism.” Racism is not the problem of the person experiencing it. It is the problem of the racist — and the society which produces that person. Emphasizing that racism is endemic in every society, “built in like a rot in a frame”, she said it festers and spreads because many of those in charge allow it to do so and others pretend it is not there.
Today’s commemoration requires a reckoning with the dark history of chattel slavery, she said, recalling that in 1619, 402 African slaves were forced into the colony of Virginia. Describing slavery as the “original sin” that weaved white supremacy and black inferiority into the founding documents and principles of the United States, she said her country is not the original source; “others share the shame with us”. Slavery has existed in every corner of the globe, including among Africans who enslaved fellow Africans. Recalling that the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked the global Black Lives Matter movement, she called for dismantling white supremacy “at every turn”, stressing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a spike in hate crimes over the last three years to a level not seen in the country for a decade — and which does not capture the violence faced by Asian Americans since the outbreak of COVID-19. In honour of the victims of the “senseless tragedy” in Atlanta, the United States Mission to the United Nations is flying its flag at half-staff.
In her career spanning four decades and four continents, she said she experienced racism during overzealous searches in airports and in witnessing the racial profiling of her son. For millions of people, racism is deadly, including for the Rohingyas in “Burma” who have been killed in “staggering” numbers, or the Uighurs in China, where the Government has committed genocide against them. She yet remains hopeful, having witnessed how communities and countries can create change. As just one example, she said she sits before the Assembly today as a descendent of slaves. “We cannot control the hate in people’s hearts” she said. “We can change the roles that give them licence.” The Cabinet of the new United States Administration is the most diverse in history and includes the first Native American confirmed to a post. “We can make our Governments reflect our highest aspirations,” she assured. Recognizing that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the most disadvantaged, she said the emergency relief funds provided to help Black and Brown communities in particular marks “just the beginning”. While the United States has flaws, “we talk about them. We work to address them, and we press on in hopes we can leave the country better than we found it,” she said, calling on all countries to recognize endemic racism around the globe and to “remove the rot from our foundations”.
RODRIGO A. CARAZO (Costa Rica), speaking for the Central American Integration System, said this region is comprised of multi-ethnic and multicultural communities, whose contributions are important for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Rejecting all forms racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, he called for a proactive approach to ending these scourges, especially as they negatively impact civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights, including the right to development. He condemned in the strongest terms the resurgence of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, noting that in Latin America, there are 30 groups of Afro-descendants who represent 18 per cent of the region’s population. The region is committed to promoting policies and strategies to improve living conditions for them and their descendants. Women and girls must be included fully in the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. He called for bridging the gaps in education and employment, welcoming the Assembly’s decision to establish a permanent forum on people of African descent, and broadly urging the United Nations, regional organizations, civil society and the private sector to step up efforts to fight racism, and calling for a greater allocation of resources to implement the programme of action of the Decade for People of African Descent.
FRANCISCO DUARTE LOPES (Portugal), speaking for the European Union, said no country or region is free from the scourge of racism; everyone has an obligation to end it. Stressing that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected marginalized populations, he said discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin is prohibited in the European Union. Noting that the first anti-racism summit is taking place today, he said the Union will continue to strongly oppose all forms of discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, social origin, religious belief, age, or sexual orientation and identity, among other bases. Actions at national, regional and international levels are needed, he added, pressing countries to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
ANA SILVIA RODRÍGUEZ ABASCAL (Cuba) described a worrying wave of racism and xenophobia, in particular against migrants and people of African descent. Stressing that Cuba is a country “with Indian, European, African and Asian blood in our veins”, she said it has undergone a transformation to eliminate racial discrimination. Numerous measures taken in the educational, cultural, social and other spheres have led to important results in countering these scourges. Despite these gains, there are still issues to address. In November 2019, Cuba approved a national programme to identify the causes of racism and racial discrimination, diagnose the situation throughout the country and make people aware of their African heritage. These efforts also align with Cuba’s commitments under the Durban Declaration, she added.
ALOYSIUS SELWAS TABORAT (Indonesia) expressed his concern that racist and xenophobic messages are spreading on the Internet, calling for new tools to address these new forms of racism and racial discrimination. His delegation attaches importance to the International Day and the International Decade as critical to maintaining the momentum and legacy of the Durban Conference. “We must act and be seen to be implementing our commitments,” he said, noting that his country is multi-ethic and is proud of its past struggle to reject colonialism and gain independence. Advocating for the right to development of the people of African descent, he said that the International Day and the midterm review offer an opportunity to call for more measures to promote greater knowledge of their culture and contribution.
SERGIY KYSLYTSYA (Ukraine) said that the Eastern European States unfortunately did not agree on a group statement due to what seems to be one divergent view on the relevance of human rights to elimination of racial discrimination. Reiterating his solidarity with the Afro-descendant people, he stressed the importance of effectively and fully implementing the International Convention. His State is committed to its obligations under the instrument and expects the same from all its parties, he said. In this regard, his delegation has been looking forward to the implementation of the provisional measures in the International Court of Justice case against the Russian Federation on the application of the Convention.
DAI BING (China), recalling a 9 March statement delivered on behalf of 100 countries about the need to combat racism, discrimination and related intolerance, blamed the United States representative for spreading disinformation and levelling “baseless accusations”, which his country categorically rejects. While the representative admitted to her country’s ignoble human rights record, that did not allow her to “get on a high horse” and dictate to others. Rather, the United States should control the pandemic, save lives, ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines, lift its unilateral coercive measures, stop indiscriminately taking innocent lives with its military operations and do some “soul searching” on its own history of colonialization. To claims of genocide in Xinjiang, he said “nothing is more absurd”. In issuing this “bare faced lie”, the United States reveals its obsession with manufacturing claims about Xinjiang. He went on to cite a statement delivered in the Human Rights Council on behalf of several countries urging the United States to stop making unfounded accusations against China and using human rights as a cover to hold back developing countries.
BRUNO RIZZI RAZENTE (Brazil) recalled that his country has the world’s largest number of people of African descent, making today’s commemoration of utmost importance. He reaffirmed Brazil’s commitment to ending racism, especially during the pandemic, expressing exceptional support for the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Stereotyping plays a notorious role in various aspects of society, particularly affecting people of African descent, perpetuating racial disparities and injustice. To address these issues, Brazil has adopted a wide quota system within its universities and public services, creating successful new role models to tackle negative stereotypes. Since 1988, the Constitution has identified racism as a crime not subject to bail. In addition, an important enslaved character in Brazil’s history is celebrated every November, he said, adding that the Government is increasingly integrating the topic of human rights into school and university curriculums.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons