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Statement of Ms. Gay McDougall Commemorative Plenary Meeting – 72nd session of the General Assembly

General Assembly - Seventy-Second Session
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
New York, United Nations Headquarters, 20 March 2018

Mr. Chairperson,
Distinguished delegates,
Colleagues and friends,

Firstly, let me on behalf of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, thank you for the honour and opportunity to be here with you today and to congratulate you for choosing to devote the 2018 International Day for the Elimination of Racial to the promotion of tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combatting racial discrimination, a topic that is crucial for the future of our societies.

Each year we meet on this day in solemn commemoration of the 69 lives lost in Sharpeville SA in 1960 as they protested apartheid, one of the vilest forms of de jure racism. Each year the international community stops to measure our progress—how far humanity has been able to move beyond the worst of our nature, beyond the worst forms of racism.  And there has been progress.  March 21st now marks the date that Namibia tore free from apartheid SA.  The system of apartheid is now dismantled and the system of separate and unequal segregation, the regime into which I was born and raised in the south of this country, also has been defeated.

We all—all of us—worked hard and we worked together to create the conditions that made that progress possible. Today, however, the progress achieved over the past 50 years since the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is increasingly being jeopardized by threats coming from all parts of the globe.

The work that our Committee has been undertaking, the review of 20 States parties reports every year, the consideration of individual complaints submitted by victims of racial discrimination, the review of urgent situations falling under the Committee’s Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures, provides us with a wide range of indicators which confirm the global rise of racial discrimination, racism and xenophobia.

In this respect, every day it becomes clearer to our Committee that there is a toxic climate created by inflammatory racist hate rhetoric that is being tolerated by political leaders at the highest levels, who have either failed to condemn it or who have adopted it as electoral platforms.  Their failure of leadership has opened the flood gates to the spread of the most damaging ideas of racial superiority and uninhibited expressions of hatred.  License has been given to radical white supremacy groups to reassert themselves into the mainstream public discourse.

Even in the richest regions of the world, the most disadvantaged segments of the population are increasingly being portrayed as threats to the economy, the culture and the values of the country they live in. The most destitute and desperate children, women and men fleeing chaos, rather than being met with empathy, they are at times met with racist attacks, unscalable walls, detention camps, torture, sexual abuse and summary deportations.  Only a few years ago it would have been unthinkable that our Committee would have reason to adopt a statement, as we did last November, denouncing the auctioning of Black men, migrants, into slavery when they sought refuge in Libya.

At the same time, the international community that pledged “Never Again” is watching as hundreds of thousand Rohingya villagers are facing refoulment and surely genocide because of who they are and Indigenous Peoples are being robbed of their ancestral lands by development projects that take unconscionable advantage of the lack of power those communities can exert because of past injustices.

Discrimination against persons belonging to people of African Descent, Roma and Travellers remains a daily reality that permeates all areas of their life.

Distinguished delegates,

By ratifying the ICERD, States have committed under Article 7 of the Convention, to adopt immediate and effective measures in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices and to promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and racial or ethnic groups. 

It is at school that one learns to live with others; it is at school that, from the early stages of childhood, the respect for different cultures, diversity, and the ability to live together should be nourished and experienced. Education is one of the most powerful tools of inclusion.

But new trends are worrying, and among them, the increasing privatisation of school systems and the consequences in terms of increasing segregation and reinforcing inequalities in educational opportunity. 

Media, particularly social media, plays an important role in shaping people’s social and political convictions. We know all too well how a deliberate manipulation of information can promote intolerance. For this reason, our Committee has been encouraging awareness among media professionals of their responsibility to encourage diversity. 

Widely disseminated information campaigns calling attention to the harms produced by racist hate speech are critically important. As anti-migrant discourse was spreading, the Committee urged States in September 2016, ahead of the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants to take proactive measures to change the narrative on migration and to emphasize the positive contributions of migrants and refugees, who bring diversity and enrich societies, cultures and economies across the world. 

Perhaps the most difficult challenge however is to tackle the poverty and economic exclusion that is both a consequence and a cause of racial discrimination. In every country, those that have faced endemic discrimination are the poorest of the poor. They are often locked in a cycle of disadvantage and despair for generations making their poverty more intractable.

Our Committee’s General Recommendation No. 32 on special measures and Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals represent both State commitments and tools that lead the way to a more equal, inclusive and sustainable society, in which all its members will benefit. 

The Committee has also repeatedly reminded States parties that it is necessary to ensure the full engagement of the affected groups, without whom, finding long-lasting solutions to living harmoniously will not be possible or sustainable. 

We have reiterated that ethnic groups should be enabled to effectively participate in political and public affairs, not only by merely casting their votes during elections, but also by feeling empowered to contribute to shaping the common good and national agenda of the country they live in. Voice and representation matter.

Distinguished delegates,

On 18 July, Nelson Mandela. Madiba would have turned 100 years old so please allow me to conclude by some of his words:

« Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism. Let the strivings of us all, prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct when    he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war. »

I thank you for your attention.