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Opening statement by UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay to the panel discussion on “The Role of Leaders in Mobilizing Political Will for Combating Racism and Racial Discrimination” on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2014

21 March 2014

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’m delighted to address this panel on the important role of leadership in combating racism on this most resonant day.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is an annual reminder that we must act more decisively to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance around the world. These are scourges that undermine every principle of equality and justice. In so doing, they damage the universal, interdependent and indivisible human rights of us all.

This day of action against racism was established in remembrance of the 69 unarmed and peaceful South African protestors who were killed in Sharpeville, South Africa on 21 March 1960. Those killings galvanized many people around the world to act to end the racist apartheid regime.

In the five decades since Sharpeville, apartheid has been vanquished. And around the world, racism has significantly retreated. Important human rights treaties have been developed, with strong commitments to fight racism and discrimination. National protection systems are being set up by an increasing number of States. It is important that we note that today, in many workplaces, families and neighbourhoods, people relate to each other without any thought of ethnicity or skin colour.

And yet in many countries, hate speech, and violent attacks motivated by perceived race or ethnicity, are on the rise. Disgraceful discrimination regarding jobs, housing and other fundamental topics is still pervasive. In some instances, law-enforcement officials seem indifferent to these crimes. Political leaders use migrants and people from different ethnic groups as a smokescreen to deflect criticism. They hold them up as scapegoats, so as to boost their own popularity.
From my perspective as High Commissioner for Human Rights, it seems clear that such societies suffer from profoundly flawed leadership.

As the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action clearly observes, “the stigmatization of people of different origins by acts or omissions of public authorities and political parties is not only an act of racial discrimination, but can also incite the recurrence of such acts, thereby resulting in the creation of a vicious circle which reinforces racist attitudes and prejudices, and which must be condemned.”


Healthy States and communities need to be guided by people who seek to lead and to inspire, rather than merely using their office to grasp more personal aggrandizement. True leaders employ the power of their standing in society to advocate a long-term vision of racial equality and social justice. They integrate, inspire, and mobilize others to bring a common aspiration to life.

I want to share with you one example from Nelson Mandela’s life and his role as a true leader. When Mandela was released and the apartheid regime was coming to an end in South Africa, tensions were very high. There were feelings of hatred and revenge against those who had subjugated the vast majority of the country. On 25 February 1990, Madiba went to Durban in Natal Province and addressed a rally attended by over 100,000 people.

He said, “Friends, comrades, and the people of Natal, I greet you all. I do so in the name of peace, the peace that is so desperately and urgently needed in this region. In Natal, apartheid is a deadly cancer in our midst, setting house against house, and eating away at the precious ties that bound us together. This strife among ourselves wastes our energy and destroys our unity. My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea. Close down the death factories. End this war now!”

That was leadership.

The need to mobilize political will at the national, regional and international levels was the main message of the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, in 2011. It reaffirmed the international community’s political commitment to full and effective implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, as well as the outcome document of the Durban Review Conference, and their follow-up processes.

The event reminded us that leaders are obligated under international human rights law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. This includes preventing and combating racism and racial discrimination.

Our societies need and deserve leaders who aspire to the greater good. Statesmen and women who stand up for the rights of all, who take a strong and principled stand against racism, and who make real commitments to take action.

Perhaps we also need leaders who reflect the makeup of their societies. A much broader and more inclusive approach to cultivating and sustaining leadership across the span of human endeavour — from national government to municipal authorities, as well as those in charge of science, education, business, sports and the arts — would ensure that leaders reflect the full makeup of their diverse communities. Although this may not guarantee that such leaders will take a more inclusive approach to civic participation, or a longer-term view of policy, it would certainly facilitate those goals.

Last night many of you watched a biographical film about Nelson Mandela. In fact, the film’s producer, Anant Singh, is on this afternoon’s panel, and can perhaps tell us a little more about it. Mandela was a true leader, a man of immense grace and fortitude. He wrote, "What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others.”

I call on leaders around the world to absorb this lesson from a man who left the world a fairer, more equal and better place.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our panel today is a remarkable one. Ahmed Kathrada – whom everyone addresses 'Kathy' – spent more than 26 years in prison in South Africa. 18 of those years of confinement were on Robben Island, where as you know, Nelson Mandela was also held.

Emine Bozkurt is a Member of the European Parliament from Holland, of Dutch and Turkish descent. She is also a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, and Chairperson of the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup.

Our third panellist, Anant Singh, is South Africa’s pre-eminent film producer. I’m sure that those of you who watched his biographical film of Nelson Mandela’s life, which was screened here at the Palais yesterday evening, will be particularly attentive to his contributions.

I thank all of you for coming. I look forward to an inspiring discussion.