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Address of Louise Arbour, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Third Session of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action

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Geneva, 11 October 2004

Historical context

On 27 April 2004 South Africa celebrated the tenth Anniversary marking the end of apartheid - one of the most inhumane forms of governance and social structures.

In his comments on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Nelson Mandela was very clear about the role of human rights in his nation’s struggle for a society free of discrimination, a society of equality – he wrote: “This noble creed has inspired us during the darkness of despair. It will continue to be our guide in the years to come.”

While recording the hope of these great days, we must also remember the coinciding tragedy of Rwanda in the same year, 1994. This horrifying drama and the massacre in Srebrenica one year later, both largely driven by racial and ethnic intolerance and hatred, reminded us, in all their brutality that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are not vanishing phenomena.

Current relevance

We are not short of evidence that racism and xenophobia continue to be present and direct threats to human dignity. Such practices have an immediate negative impact on our individual and community life. Worse still, they poison the future. Stereotypes tend to last over generations and may curtail development opportunities in all areas: social and economic, political and cultural. Entire populations and large ethnic groups suffer in the aftermath of historical inequalities. Cross-sectional effects exacerbate the inferior position of members of societies perceived as weaker, such as children, victims of epidemics, the elderly and the disabled.

Discrimination based on racism and xenophobia results in the denial of human dignity in all situations. Although such discrimination leads only in extreme cases to conflict on a wide scale, it almost always carries the potential to escalate in such a way. Hence, it is vitally important to constantly see the phenomena of racism and xenophobia in a preventive context, even when they seem to take place in rather isolated or mild ways.

The international community rightly feels alarmed by the emergence and continued occurrence of such phenomena in their more subtle contemporary forms and manifestations. Vigilance is never exaggerated in such cases. Preventive measures, including determined educational efforts, are one of the most useful tools in dealing with the dangers posed by racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia.

No one is immune from the invidious reach of this doctrine of exclusion. Victims themselves may in turn target others for discriminatory treatment, as they attempt to escape their own unjust, unfounded and imposed inferiority.

Common approach to combat racism and xenophobia

We need a common approach to eradicate this plague. It is not enough only to talk about its imminent threat and the unresolved problems of its legacy. We need a common agenda and, fortunately, I believe we have one.

Three years have passed since the Third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance adopted a Declaration and Programme of Action. We all know that the process leading up to this Conference and negotiations at the meeting itself were complex and complicated, often giving testimony to deep-rooted feelings of injustice, of unfairness, and, sometimes, of hopelessness. The Conference, although looking forward, was also seen as an opportunity to address history, in its often difficult and dividing aspects.

We also remember that, unfortunately, in the margin of the World Conference process, some groups undertook actions opposing the core message of the Conference. Notwithstanding these regrettable developments, the World Conference finished with a road map for further action toward the implementation of the principles of non-discrimination and equality.

The Declaration and Programme of Action not only records a solemn commitment by States to work together but also offers a functional common agenda.

Common implementation

This Working Group holds a central place in the implementation of the World Conference’s recommendations and I would like to congratulate you on the decision to focus your programme on in-depth analysis of concrete cross-cutting themes and the legal framework for combating racism and xenophobia. In this way, the Working Group has become a unique forum for sharing experience, promoting good practices, and analysing needs. Moreover, it is a forum bringing together different actors from within and outside the United Nations system. In this way, the Working Group is today not just a resource body for the Commission on Human Rights. Your recommendations provide valuable guidance for many different actors at both international and national levels.

At its last session, the Working Group examined the relationship between racism, xenophobia and two highly relevant social issues, namely education and poverty. At the present session, you will explore the issues of health and the Internet and continue your dialogue on the legal framework for combating racism and xenophobia and their consequences. You will address possible gaps and weaknesses in the existing instruments and their implementation.

Two other bodies have also been created to follow up on the effective implementation of the recommendations of the World Conference. They are: the Group of five Eminent Persons and the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. May I encourage you to think about all these bodies as functionally linked. Only then will we be able to benefit from their full potential.

Member States bear the primary responsibility to ensure the effective implementation of the right to equality and non-discrimination. States’ participation in developing the anti-discrimination agenda established by the World Conference has created expectations that can only be met by determined and cooperative action.

Very important steps have been undertaken at both the international and national levels as regards normative standards aimed at the elimination of racism and xenophobia. However, in order to improve the situation of persons who are disadvantaged directly or indirectly through structural discrimination, concrete and effective policies and programmes must be combined with a legal approach. Special positive measures should aim at accelerating equal access to human rights and participation in development by those who have been marginalized as a consequence of discrimination.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights - practical approach

In this regard, I am determined to make the struggle against racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia a priority of our Office, cutting across all its areas of activities. At the same time, I want to make our approach as practical as possible. We should address the current and most acute manifestations of racism and xenophobia by focusing on steps that can prevent situations of discrimination or contribute to the amelioration of related problems.

Our Office is in a unique position to promote respect and tolerance for different cultures, traditions, and religions, but it also bears a unique responsibility for assisting victims and disadvantaged. Acting as a catalyst of international cooperation, our Office will build alliances of good will and determination. We will continue to cooperate with international and regional organizations. We will enhance our links with, and support for, non-governmental organizations and other parts of civil society.

We are now developing a medium term work plan that will be oriented toward practical results. It is too early to talk about details in this regard, but we can already say that the plan will aim at integrating the relevant activities in the work of our field presences and technical cooperation projects. We will help UN country teams to integrate the fight against racism and xenophobia, as well the protection of minorities and indigenous peoples, in their programmes designed to assist States in developing their national human rights protection systems. It is also our intention to contribute to the strengthening of relevant legal frameworks, including support for the ratification of the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

I would also like to follow on some of the ideas discussed at the World Conference, such as the appointment of goodwill ambassadors to promote respect for human rights and a culture of tolerance. In cooperation with agencies and programmes, we will assist in linking UN country teams and other actors at the country level with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and other United Nations human rights treaty bodies. We will also continue consultations with UNESCO and non-governmental organizations to encourage research activities addressing basic challenges in the area of racism and xenophobia.

In our efforts we will build on the experience of the work done so far at the international, regional and country levels. The implementation of the OHCHR programme will require support by a fully functional Anti-Discrimination Unit, which we are already in the process of strengthening. Previous delays in filling the Unit’s posts are being made up. Pending the completion of our recruitment efforts, we have increased the capacities of the Team on a temporary basis.

In cooperation with partners, we will attempt to strengthen our approach by placing at the centre those who suffer from discrimination and its disadvantageous impacts, hostilities, and marginalization. I have already spoken on the need for positive measures at international and national levels. In cooperation with development organizations and institutions, I hope that we can focus on vehicles that will help the disadvantaged to escape the inferior situation imposed on them. These vehicles must include above all access to educational opportunities.

As we focus on processes, goals, objectives and strategies to combat racism and racial discrimination, we must remember that we are confronting an ideology of hatred, arrogance and exclusion, the very anti-thesis of the human rights premise that all human beings are equally deserving of protection and fulfillment under the law. In promoting racial harmony and substantive equality we must educate, we may persuade and we must be prepared to deter.

In the long run, we may hope to change the hearts and minds of the racially intolerant. In the short term, however, we must strive to counteract their practices.


In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the common agenda adopted at the World Conference has created high expectations. It is our responsibility to meet them through innovative approaches, additional efforts and close cooperation.

I look forward to the continued contribution of this Working Group to this essential endeavor.

Thank you.