On 21 March each year, the UN marks the day in 1960 when dozens of peaceful protesters were gunned down by police in the South African township of Sharpeville as they demonstrated against apartheid.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said “the massacre in Sharpeville represents a much wider tragedy: we mark its anniversary to remember also the millions of people around the world who are still, today, victims of racism and racial discrimination.
“Racial discrimination denies its victims the most fundamental of all human rights – the right to equality,” she noted in her message for the Day.
“Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are insidious, corrosive and sometimes explosive forces that devastate the lives of many individuals and, if left to fester, can undermine societies as a whole. They present a threat to security and often feature among the root causes of violent conflict.
“Taken to an extreme, unchecked – or deliberately fuelled – racial discrimination and intolerance can lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide,” she added.
Pillay recalled that governments recognized that no country was free of racism and pledged to take concrete steps to eradicate it when they met in Durban, South Africa, for the 2001 World Conference against Racism.
In April, the international community will gather in Geneva to review the progress that has been made in implementing those pledges.
“There has indeed been progress in the intervening years in many areas, but that progress has been partial, and there have been serious setbacks too. The challenge we face is to translate those 2001 promises into action,” stated the High Commissioner.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that in the years since Durban, the world has witnessed a disturbing rise in reports of hatred and bigotry, linked in part to terrorism and increasing migration.
“The Review Conference is a timely opportunity for countries to share experiences, identify best practices and reaffirm their commitment to the battle against racism,” he stated.
“Racism exists in all countries, and I urge all countries to work together in the struggle against it.”
An independent UN human rights expert has also called for full participation in the Durban review process, stressing that the time is “ripe” for a renewed international engagement against racism.
“Day after day we are reminded of the continued relevance of the fight against all forms of racism,” said Githu Muigai, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
“Displays of intolerance abound, from small gestures in interpersonal relations to large-scale violence targeting people of different skin colour or ethnicity. In particular in times of a global financial crisis, intolerance tends to become even more pronounced, fostering racial, ethnic and xenophobic tensions.”
He added that the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action remains the most comprehensive framework of international, regional and national actions needed to counter racism. “A successful Review Conference will empower all stakeholders across the world, providing them with yet additional tools to be employed in their daily fight against racism.”