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Panel on Durban at the 31st of the Human Rights Council


Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights statement

Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

Fifteen years ago, in Durban, the world came together to work to end racism. Never before had world leaders sought to eliminate this profound and terrible injustice through a comprehensive global strategy to address the roots of all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. The World Conference against Racism recognized, for the first time, that no country can claim to be free of racism; that racism is a global concern; and that tackling it requires an unprecedented universal effort.

Durban recognized that racial discrimination pervades all aspects of life. From neighbourhoods and schools to workplaces and even access to public goods such as water, it is an injustice that cuts many ways, and runs deep into the past. Racism and discrimination of all kinds are still so pervasive that laws and policies alone cannot hope to change them – it also requires education, historical awareness, recognition of injustices, and redress.

The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and the Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference, make it clear that the anti-discrimination agenda is for all of us – regardless of race, colour, ethnic or national origin, religion or belief. Durban also made it clear that racial discrimination - including against people of African and Asian descent; migrants, Roma, indigenous peoples and minorities; discrimination against people with HIV-AIDS, and the multiple forms of discrimination and exclusion faced by women must be fought. These texts also addressed the profound injustice of religious intolerance – for example Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, both of which are shockingly increasing in many countries.

This 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration is an opportunity to consider how far we have come. But given the disgraceful persistence of discrimination across the globe, it must also be an occasion to renew our commitment to raising new generations free of the multiple violations of human rights that stem from policies and practices inspired by prejudice and bigotry, by taking further action.

Unquestionably, there has been good progress over the past 15 years. Many national action plans and anti-discrimination laws have been adopted or upgraded to comply with Durban recommendations. Those frameworks have assisted governments to push back discrimination at the national level, and have enabled countless people to fight for equality. A dynamic network of civil society actors evolved in preparation for the World Conference, and today these organisations form a strong and impressive array of active voices.

As the Declaration states clearly, slavery and the transAtlantic slave trade "are a crime against humanity and should always have been so". Their legacy of violence, fear, deprivation and searing prejudice continues to be borne by people of African descent. Historically and in the present day, people of African descent are and have always been major contributors to development and the prosperity of their societies, but still today, they are frequently deprived of equal access to opportunities and services. The International Decade for People of African Descent, which is coordinated by the High Commissioner, is in many ways an heir to the Durban conference. Its three themes – Recognition, Justice and Development – focus on the right to equality and non-discrimination, and awareness-raising about people of African descent; ensuring access to justice and equality before the law; and participation of people of African descent in development, with emphasis on taking measures against poverty. I count the proclamation of the International Decade and the adoption of its Programme of Activities among our achievements.

But there have also been challenges. The Durban outcomes were the result of a difficult, lengthy and at times frustrating process, and focalised a number of contentious debates. Some of the Durban follow-up mechanisms – in particular, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards and the Independent Eminent Experts – were initially hampered by this political context and still suffer from a lack of political will and agreement. I am, however, encouraged to observe that their recent sessions have demonstrated a constructive and pragmatic approach, and that incremental progress is being made.

We are seeing growing incidents of racial discrimination and xenophobia in Europe and elsewhere. Migrants are becoming scapegoats for deeper problems. Violence targets foreigners and others based on their real or perceived race, colour, ethnic origin or religion. The archaic injustice of prejudice still stalks through modern life, generating daily humiliations and oppressions for individuals, deepening divisions between communities, and holding back millions of people from realising their rights.

The Durban principles can bring us guidance in formulating sound policies to counter the extremely alarming resurgence of racism, discrimination and intolerance. Now more than ever, States must focus their attention on fulfilling their responsibility to protect the most vulnerable sectors in society. We must be vigilant, to ensure that the stress of factors such as rising unemployment is not displaced into racist harassment, abuse, discrimination and attacks. We must not condone the manipulation of such sentiments for political gain, or their manifestation in official policies.

Together with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which has been ratified by 178 States, the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action constitutes a strong basis for combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. These two instruments against racism complement each other, and the universal ratification of the ICERD Convention is an important goal of the DDPA.

In a world of competing priorities and technological advancement, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from the age-old fight against racism and intolerance. Any procrastination in this regard will compound the problem and ill-serve the millions of people around the world who suffer the injustice and indignity of racial discrimination every day. We must use all the tools at our disposal to undo these profound violations. It is urgent that States honour the commitments made at Durban, and their obligations under international human rights law

Human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated. They are universal because everyone is born with and possesses the same rights. They are indivisible and interdependent because all rights – political, civil, social, cultural and economic – are equal in importance and none can be fully enjoyed without the others. These rights apply to all of us equally, and when the human rights of one group are denied, that damages the dignity and equality of us all.

I look forward to your contributions.

Thank you