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Address by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, Freedom Park, Pretoria, South Africa,
10 December 2009

10 December 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,
My Fellow South Africans,

I am delighted to be in Freedom Park today to celebrate the power of universal human rights.    Indeed, it is befitting that this celebration takes place in South Africa where we know a thing or two about the denial of rights, discrimination and inequality.   In this country we have relegated to the debris of history the abhorrent forms of discrimination perpetrated by the apartheid regime.  And it was this country that hosted in Durban the 2001 World Conference against racism and racial discrimination. But discrimination is a diehard plague.  It keeps affecting communities in South Africa and elsewhere. I wish more power to all of you, to all of us, to end it for good.

Humanity’s long march in the fight against discrimination has never been easy.  But this is a struggle that lies at the very heart of human rights advocacy.  That is why the United Nations has devoted this year’s Human Rights Day on December 10th to combat discrimination, inequality and intolerance and embrace diversity.  Our task has acquired more urgency and poignancy in our increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies.

The truth is that no country is free of discrimination.  As the Secretary-General of the United Nations noted, we see intolerance and exclusion in national histories that deny the identity of others, or that reject rightful grievances of minorities who might not share a so-called “official history.”   Let me echo his words and reiterate that discrimination can take many forms, old and new, covert or blatant, public or private.

It may appear as institutionalized racism, or ethnic strife, or manifest itself in episodes of intolerance and rejection that escape scrutiny.  Its victims are individuals or groups that are most vulnerable to attacks all those that, due to their race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, status, disabilities, and  sexual orientation are perceived as different.

These people are frequently excluded from fully participating in the life of a community, from its economic, political, cultural, and social developments.  New forms of xenophobia are on the rise, particularly against refugees and migrants.  Attacks against non-nationals in South Africa and elsewhere are gravely alarming. In some countries the bigotry that stigmatizes, vilifies and excludes those who are perceived as outsiders is, at times, used for sinister political agendas. 

We must counter this bigotry, and we have done so.  The vision of human rights advocates, their sheer determination and energy paid off by raising awareness among the public and by producing a number of human rights treaties that give effect to anti-discrimination and equality provisions.   These treaties create a protective web of obligations that States must fulfil. They restore the dignity previously denied to millions of women, men and children and concretely improve their lives.  And the outcomes of the Durban world conference against racism and its review process are veritable roadmaps along which advances in the struggle against discrimination can be fostered and monitored.

I am pleased to announce my office’s plan to support the work of the South African Human Rights Commission through a four-pronged project which will begin early next year. The project’s aim is to help implementing the Durban process blueprint, to strengthen the capacity of the Commission and its legal services programs, to shore up its ability to counter racism and other forms of discrimination, as well as bolster its efforts to protect the rights of detainees.

Yes, progress has been remarkable, but we should not pause.  Discrimination does not go away by itself.  It must be challenged at every turn. We must move forward and move quickly.  Let us make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ principles of equality, freedom and dignity for all resonate everywhere.  Universal tolerance and respect for diversity is our goal.

I invite all to join the United Nations and countless human rights advocates in the struggle against discrimination. Take the challenge to your communities, to your schools, to your workplace. Do so now.  Thank you.