Human Rights Day program at the United Nations focuses on upcoming World Conference Against Racism

Subject: 
United Nations

Featuring a nine-city videoconference that gave it global reach, a commemoration of Human Rights Day held here on 7 December focused on preparations for next year's World Conference Against Racism, with speakers stressing the worldwide nature of racism and intolerance and the need to find new approaches that will promote the acceptance of human diversity.

Speakers included Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Jyoti Singh, Executive Coordinator of the UN World Conference Against Racism; Techeste Ahderom, Chairman of the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Committee on Human Rights and a Baha'i International Community representative to the United Nations; and Pitso Montwedi, Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of South Africa to the UN.

"My central message for the World Conference is that we are all one human family, regardless of race, color, descent, ethnic or social origin, and that for too long diversity has been regarded as a threat rather than a gift," said Ms. Robinson, who spoke from Santiago, Chile, where she was taking part in a regional preparatory meeting for the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which is scheduled to be held in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September 2001.

"It is time that we refocus our understanding and allow diversity to be a potential for mutual enrichment and benefit," continued Ms. Robinson, who is also Secretary-General of the Racism Conference. "I believe, therefore, there is a need to generate a constructive, positive, forward-looking approach to the possible outcome of the World Conference against Racism, the first of its kind to be organized by the United Nations in the post-cold war and post-apartheid era."

Pitso Montwedi of South Africa, also speaking from Santiago, expressed his hopes for next year's conference and for the efficacy of the outcome document, which will be known as the Durban Declaration and Platform of Action.

"We, as the hosts of the World Conference, believe that racism is a global problem," said Mr. Montwedi. "We would like to see the widest possible participation from governments, NGOs and civil society because everyone has a stake in this issue."

Mr. Ahderom, speaking in New York, addressed the concerns of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the upcoming World Conference. "NGOs are already going to the substance of the issues to be presented at the Conference," said Mr. Ahderom, noting that NGOs have been extensively involved in preparatory meetings for the Conference. "There is an effort to try to pass from the mere articulation of the problems to true implementation of a solution.

"Racism is a stubborn foe with roots that run deep in the human psyche," Mr. Ahderom added. "Racism is very tenacious because it is not confined to its political manifestation. It is enduring because it takes place in the hearts and minds of individual people."

The videoconference linked participants in Bogota, Chicago, Geneva, Mexico City, New York, Rome, San Francisco, Santiago and Vienna. It also enabled participants in those cities and on the Internet to ask questions and join in the discussion.

In that discussion, participants expressed concern about a wide range of issues related to racism and intolerance, from the exploitation of indigenous peoples, migrant workers, the mentally ill, and refugees to the concerns of specific groups like the Dalits in India.

Renata Bloom, a participant in Geneva, asked, for example: "How do we go beyond the naming of the issues to the real matter of seeing diversity as a gift?"

Addressing this question, Mary Robinson said there was a need for a positive approach to teach the acceptance of the value of diversity and stressed the need for education at the primary school level. "Racism is a value system that is learned," she said. Schools should get involved by sponsoring essay contests and other such competitions to engender greater tolerance and appreciation of cultural and ethnic differences.

"Racial hatreds are the fruits of ignorance," added Mr. Ahderom. "In the absence of spiritual values, people have a need to elevate one group over another."

Like Ms. Robinson, Mr. Ahderom called for a far-reaching educational campaign as the answer to racial intolerance, and said that NGOs and civil society should be in the forefront of such an effort, building on the "beautiful consensus" they have already achieved in many respects.

The provisional agenda of the World Conference Against Racism is grouped around five themes: (1) sources, causes, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance; (2) victims of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance; (3) measures of prevention, education and protection aimed at the eradication of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance at the national, regional and international levels; (4) provision for effective remedies, recourses, redress, and other measures at the national, regional and international levels; and (5) strategies to achieve full and effective equality, including international co-operation and enhancement of the United Nations and other international mechanisms in combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia.