“If a phantom has at some time traveled this earth, it is racism. I understand this as a phenomenon that is supported by the belief of superiority in the face of difference, in the belief that one’s own culture possesses values superior to those of other cultures. It has not been stated often enough that racism has historically been a banner to justify the enterprises of expansion, conquest, colonization and domination and has walked hand in hand with intolerance, injustice and violence.” – Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Guatemalan Indigenous Leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, at the Sixth Lascasianas Symposium in Mexico, 1996.
Rigoberta Menchu Tum’s eloquent words on the history and ongoing effects of racism resonant each year on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The United Nations’ General Assembly proclaimed March 21 as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966, six years after that day in 1960 when police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against that country’s apartheid ‘pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa. The ironically named “pass laws” forced black South Africa to carry identification documents at all times and prohibited black Africans to leave a bantustan without them.
Since 1966, South Africa’s apartheid systems have been dismantled and racist laws and practices have been rescinded both in South Africa and many other countries. The International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination has gone a long way toward highlighting – and banishing – racial discrimination in all its various expressions, but racism remains embedded in countries worldwide. Although the United States has ratified the Convention, it expressed reservations about its implementation: “The Constitution of the United States contains provisions for the protection of individual rights, such as the right of free speech, and nothing in the Convention shall be deemed to require or to authorize legislation or other action by the United States of America incompatible with the provisions of the Constitution of the United States of America.”
The theme of this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is “Racism and Conflict,” linking the fact that racism and discrimination are often tied to deadly conflict. “Racism and racial discrimination have been used as weapons to engender fear and hatred. In extreme cases, ruthless leaders instigate prejudice to incite genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message commemorating the day. “Racism undermines peace, security, justice and social progress. It is a violation of human rights that tears at individuals and rips apart the social fabric.”
In her statement marking the Day, Navi Pillay, the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited a survey showing that 55 percent of violent conflicts between 2007 and 2009 had violations of minority rights or ethnic tensions at their core. “The relationship between racism and conflict is a deep-rooted, well-established one,” she said.
One of the major barriers to eliminating racism is that the earliest warnings of prejudice and discord are so often ignored, and it is only when the later, more sinister signs begin to emerge that the State and the international community react.
“On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I call on States to heed the early warnings of prejudice, stereotypes, ignorance and xenophobia. I call on them to address, urgently, the marginalization and exclusion of individuals belonging to certain communities from political and economic decision-making. I call for a process of consultation and constant dialogue with all sectors of society, a redoubling of efforts to ensure that access to jobs, to land, to political and economic rights is not contingent on one’s color, ethnic, national or racial background, and that development projects do not disproportionately disadvantage a particular community,” Pillay said. She said these are not new obligations on the part of states, but are longstanding universally agreed human rights commitments.