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Effective means to combat racism by drawing lessons from the past

Side-event at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council

Opening address by
Ms. Navi Pillay
High Commissioner for Human Rights

Monday 10 March 2014, 13h00
Room XXI, Palais des Nations

Colleagues and friends,

Thank you for inviting me to open this discussion on combatting racism by drawing lessons from the past.  I’d like to welcome George Bizos to Geneva and thank him for his presence here today. I look forward to your thoughts on this topic, George.  I identify with victims of racism everywhere having been a victim of racism myself for over five decades in Apartheid South Africa.   

What are some of the lessons that we learned during the struggle against apartheid? And how can they inform our current struggle to combat racism?

If I were to outline some of my own thoughts on this, I would say lesson number one is MOBILIZE. At the apex of the struggle against apartheid, it seemed as though the whole world was mobilized on the issue of institutionalized racism in South Africa. Even in countries that were very distant from us, people were conscious of how intolerable apartheid was - in theory and in practice. And from officials in international institutions to young children, they helped us oppose it.

So it is possible to mobilize people on a subject that does not directly touch their lives but hurts others? Today we need to galvanize world opinion against attitudes that discriminate against people on the basis of their perceived race, ethnic or religious background, gender, caste status, disability, age or sexual orientation. We need to generalize the understanding that these attitudes are a fundamental attack on our equality and dignity as human beings.

Let me say that again: our human rights are indivisible. Racism and discrimination are violations of the human rights of us all.

Lesson number two is ACT EARLY. Too often, political leaders use migrants as a smokescreen to deflect criticism. They hold up these vulnerable people as scapegoats, so as to boost their own popularity. With this kind of encouragement, hate speech against “strangers” against “the other” increases and spreads in society as a whole, because it begins to seem acceptable. Discrimination and exclusion may impact equal access to justice, employment or housing to people of certain backgrounds, and lead to systematic racial profiling.

This in turn may lead to violent attacks on people seen as “the other” such as minorities, migrants, people with albinism or those who look different. If the authorities are indifferent to this, law enforcement officials may not be directed to respond vigorously to rising xenophobic crime. What this means is that vulnerable groups are denied protection of the law.

Perhaps the next step will be that those who clearly qualify for refugee status are refused access to a well-run asylum procedure. There may even be discriminatory legislation. In other words, there is an escalation from discriminatory discourse to institutional racism.

It is vitally important to address what some people might see as “minor” expressions of racism or hatred. We must speak out. We need more focused pressure from grass roots movements. And we need leaders to stand up for the universal human rights for all, to take a strong and principled stand against racism, and to make real commitments to take action.

Lesson number three is to challenge to challenge violation of human rights in THE COURTS.  Judges can play a huge role in fighting discrimination. For example, I remember the case of Ciliza v Minister of Police in South Africa in 1976. A white policeman used the word “kaffir” to a black man, and that man dared to turn around and claim damages. “Kaffir” was then a routine word, a very humiliating and ugly word that was used to address black people, just as Indians were routinely called “coolie”. But the Justice of the Peace ruled that use of this word constituted iniuria, a damaging insult, and the plaintiff was awarded 150 rand. This was US$130 at the 1976 conversion rate. Not much. But that one court decision started a big change, by criminalizing the use of racial insults.

Lesson number four is the role of the mass media in propagating values and ending prejudice.  Perhaps this won’t surprise you, but advertising - and other forms of mass communication - work. They shift minds, and make big changes seem possible.  In South Africa there were only white faces portrayed in advertising. The first advert I saw that mixed white faces with black ones must have been in 1990. It was an advertisement for beer, with a crowd of white men laughing and among them, one black man. My reaction was disbelief. It still seemed unlikely to me that average South Africans could relate to each other regardless of colour. But minds changed.

Lesson number five is EDUCATION. Apartheid is over now, but I believe it’s important that we teach children everywhere about the reality of apartheid, as well as the successful struggle against it. “Once upon a time, laws were set up to impose servitude and inequality on people because of their skin colour” - this is a very shocking story.  In order to learn from the past, we must know the past.

Children growing up today may think that racism is only about individual actions; they may be unfamiliar with the concept of institutionalised racism. The story of apartheid sensitizes children to grasp that apparently minor ideas of racial difference may build up to racist violence and institutionalized racism. It also teaches something that every child should know: each of us can make a difference. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, every child in Finland or Hong Kong who refused to eat South African oranges, or who wrote to their government demanding sanctions had an impact in ending apartheid.

Racism is the denial of human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.  Nelson Mandela spoke loudly on this, “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy”, he said from the dock at the Rivonia Treason trial on 20 April 1964 which sent him to prison for 27 long years.  At his inauguration as President of South Africa, 10 May 1994, he acknowledged the importance of world condemnation of racism.  “The Universal struggle against Apartheid was not an act of charity arising out of pity for our people, but an affirmation of our common humanity.  Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.” 

Thank you.