Enhancing equality and countering discrimination

Relevance of the issue

The elimination of all forms of discrimination has been one of the core objectives of the United Nations since its inception. Non-discrimination and equality before the law constitute fundamental principles of international human rights law and are essential elements of human dignity. Indeed, the international human rights framework was built upon and operates in accordance with the fundamental premise of equal respect for all persons and freedom from discrimination on any ground. In far too many countries, however, people continue to be excluded, marginalized, distinguished and restricted in the exercise of their rights based on grounds of race, colour, national, ethnic or social origin, language, sex, religion, political or other opinion, descent, birth, caste, age, disability, health status, migration status, sexual orientation or gender identity. The burden is even greater for those who experience multiple forms of discrimination.

Demonstration against racism in Stockholm, Sweden. The text on placard reads 'United against racism.'
Demonstration against racism in Stockholm, Sweden. The text on placard reads 'United against racism.'

Discrimination is also one of the root causes of conflicts and manifestations of violence, particularly against women and girls, that continue unabated around the world. In times of economic crisis, inequalities can be further accentuated and members of vulnerable and marginalized groups face greater risks, exclusion and barriers in the exercise of their rights. Many of them are exposed to xenophobia that may be fuelled by austerity measures or tightening of immigration laws. At the same time, in recent years, the world has witnessed a formidable quest by people, especially those who are marginalized, to claim their rights.

Despite efforts undertaken at the international and national levels, discriminated groups continue to face intolerance and violence. The existing international legal instruments and standards are not sufficiently incorporated into the domestic legal system and national policies and national protection frameworks or mechanisms are not strong enough to counter all forms of discrimination. In fact, national laws, institutions and practices may perpetuate direct or indirect discrimination. In many countries, political transitions have led to positive changes but have also brought about additional risks resulting from social unrest and instability, an erosion of State control and increased violence. This has made the protection of minorities more difficult, especially against incitement to national, racial and religious hatred.1/ In some cases, traditional or cultural beliefs and practices can limit the freedom enjoyed by women, and their participation in political life, as well as the ability of victims of other forms of discrimination to exercise their rights.

OHCHR expected contribution

Enhancing equality and countering discrimination
  • National human rights institutions and civil society create and support participatory mechanisms to enhance equality and counter discrimination
  • Increased and effective use of national protection systems by individuals and groups faced with discrimination
  • Increased use of anti-discrimination and equality standards by judges and prosecutors

  • State agents and political and faith-based actors increasingly comply with human rights standards related to public freedoms and take measures for the development of an independent and pluralistic civil society

  • Constitutions, laws and policies increasingly protect human rights, especially land and housing rights and with particular attention to non-discrimination and gender equality, in the context of development and exploitation of natural resources

  • Legal frameworks, public policies and institutions are in place and functioning to combat sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking and related exploitation


  • Increased ratification of international human rights instruments and review of reservations


  • Legislation, policies and practices increasingly comply with anti-discrimination and equality standards

  • Increased number of specialized equality bodies, focal points and NHRIs working on equality and non-discrimination in line with international standards

  • Increased representation of marginalized and discriminated groups in State institutions and decision-making bodies


  • Increased number and diversity of rights-holders, and of national human rights institutions and civil society actors acting on their behalf, making use of United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms and bodies


  • Increased compliance and engagement of Member States with international human rights mechanisms


  • Progressive development of international and regional human rights law in areas relevant to the thematic priorities


  • Increased integration of human rights in international and regional processes relevant to migration
  • Increased responsiveness of the international community in ensuring accountability for gross human rights violations


  • Implementation of the Secretary-General’s Guidance Notes and Guidelines on Racial Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and the UN Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership

By 2017, OHCHR expects to have contributed to the achievement of the results outlined on the table above. OHCHR will pursue these behavioural, institutional and legislative changes in cooperation with relevant partners and using the different strategic tools at its disposal (see Part I on OHCHR’s Theory of Change). It is expected that if achieved, these results will contribute to improving the duty-bearers' compliance with their international human rights obligations and to the rights-holders' ability to claim their rights, and thereby to enhancing equality and countering discrimination. To illustrate the interrelated nature of the Thematic Strategies, the table shows all the results to which OHCHR is planning to contribute in this area, including relevant results from other strategies which can be identified as follows: Mechanisms Strategy; Rule of Law Strategy; Development Strategy; Democracy Strategy; Violence Strategy.

OHCHR added value

OHCHR, as the lead UN entity for human rights, has a long history and extensive experience in the anti-discrimination field. It serves as the Secretariat to the UN human rights treaty bodies, which consistently address discrimination in multiple sectors and contexts and have issued both general comments and specific recommendations aimed at preventing discrimination and improving protection measures at the national level.

Combating discrimination is the central focus of three of the treaty bodies, namely the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It is also a recurrent theme in the work of other treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) and the Committee against Torture (CAT), each of which has issued recommendations concerning discriminatory restrictions on the exercise of treaty-protected rights. The work of these bodies has helped to clarify the extent of the obligations of States Parties to protect individuals from discrimination on grounds of race, colour, national, ethnic or social origin, language, sex, religion, political or other opinion, descent, birth, caste, age, disability, health status, migration status, sexual orientation, gender identity or other grounds and areas where awareness about such discrimination has increased in recent years.

Kevin-Prince Boateng (left), professional footballer, Patrick Vieira (right), former captain of the French national team and Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights during a panel discussion on “Racism and Sport.”
Kevin-Prince Boateng (left), professional footballer, Patrick Vieira (right), former captain of the French national team and Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for
Human Rights during a panel discussion on “Racism and Sport.”OHCHR/Mexico

The Office also supports special procedures and other subsidiary bodies of the Human Rights Council, including those dealing specifically with discrimination, such as the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, the Special Rapporteur (SR) on the rights of migrants, the SR on contemporary forms of racism, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women, the SR on the rights of indigenous peoples, the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Forum on Minority Issues and intergovernmental bodies such as the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards and the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing.

OHCHR has in-house expertise on a wide range of discrimination-related issues and is well placed to address contemporary and emerging issues related to anti-discrimination and equality. It provides a global forum to facilitate dialogue and an exchange of views on a multitude of discrimination concerns and issues.

The Office has accumulated a wealth of experience in supporting States in complying with their international obligations and commitments and following up on the recommendations issued by human rights bodies and mechanisms. These recommendations may include the repeal of discriminatory laws, the adoption, reform and implementation of anti-discrimination laws, public policies, programmes and national action plans (NAPs) or the strengthening of national human rights institutions (NHRIs), specialized equality bodies and civil society actors. OHCHR will continue to support national efforts in these areas on the basis of lessons learned in the course of experience. This experience has shown, for example, that insufficient political will, lack of adequate monitoring and evaluation schemes and procedures or lack or insufficient awareness at the national level have hindered the implementation of NAPs and limited the impact of specialized anti-discrimination and/or equality bodies.

Indigenous communities in Cambodia claim their land rights.
Indigenous communities in Cambodia claim their land rights.

OHCHR is also well placed to raise awareness of the international standards on the elimination of all types of discrimination among discriminated groups and strengthen their capacity to claim their rights, thereby supporting grassroots and community-based efforts to combat discrimination. Nevertheless, national protection mechanisms, including judges and courts, have not been proactive in enforcing these standards in their decisions and rulings. Further, discriminated groups are still not using national protection mechanisms to seek redress for discriminatory practices against them.

In this context, the Office has in some cases developed public information campaigns to address and challenge public attitudes and negative stereotypes contributing to discriminatory practices. OHCHR’s engagement on the issue of caste-based discrimination in Nepal demonstrates that when sufficient efforts, a broad network of actors and a ground swell of opinion are mobilized, including through the media, positive change is possible. In Nepal, national legislation criminalizing caste-based discrimination was passed in 2011 under the impetus garnered by the OHCHR Nepal Office which was followed by a 100-day campaign launched by the President of the country to end caste-based discrimination.

Combating discrimination is inherent to the three pillars of the United Nations – peace and security, development and human rights – and requires system-wide, coordinated engagement. It is recognized that system-wide collaboration between the Office and UN agencies, funds and programmes on issues of discrimination should be strengthened. OHCHR is working to increase its role and effectiveness in mainstreaming the principles of equality and non-discrimination throughout the work of the UN system at the global, regional and national levels, including through the implementation of the Secretary-General’s Guidance Note on racial discrimination and the protection of minorities.


1/Incitement to hatred is used with reference to article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which reads that: “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Reference is also made to General Comment No. 34 (Freedom of Opinion and Expression) by the Human Rights Committee and General Recommendation No. 35 (Combating Racist Hate Speech) by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  

For more information about how OHCHR intends to contribute to the changes outlined in this page, please see the complete text, which is contained in the OHCHR Management Plan 2014-2017.