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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Panel discussion on the incompatibility between democracy and racism

DHC discours "democracy and racism"

18 March 2016

Mr. Vice-President,
Colleagues and Friends,

Our focus today is on the challenges to democratic values and human rights principles posed by racism and related intolerance. We will be looking at the role of public authorities and political leaders in fighting racism and other forms of discrimination, and the need for transparent and accountable governance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in what promises to be a fascinating discussion, and a very important one.

Today, in many parts of the world, we see a resurgence of movements expressing racial, religious, national or ethnic hatred. We also hear political voices which echo and even actively advocate xenophobia, demonizing and scapegoating vulnerable groups.

Thus in recent months, we have witnessed national newspapers stigmatising groups of vulnerable refugees and migrants as "cockroaches" and "organised invaders";members of Parliament who have blogged about the supposed negative characteristics and disproportionate influence of Jews; and political campaigns with posters depicting white sheep kicking out a black one. In the wake of the current migration crisis, we have heard leaders declare that only people of a certain religion need apply for residency in their country – fuelling Islamophobia. Some States continue to refuse citizenship, and even university education, to members of certain ethnic minorities, though they have lived in the country for generations. The Council's Resolution 29/20 unequivocally condemns such attitudes and policies.

We are also seeing a resurgence of violent attacks motivated by racism, xenophobia and related intolerance, alongside persistent and profound discrimination against numerous groups, which leads to their marginalization, exclusion and diminished participation in society.

The profound and toxic assumption of racial superiority undermines the foundations of democracy and the rule of law. As Resolution 29/20 rightly emphasises, this debasement of groups of people is deeply and fundamentally contrary to every principle of human rights, which under international human rights law is tantamount to a criminal offense.

It is also profoundly dangerous. By sharpening divisions in society, dehumanising certain groups and creating acute grievances, history has shown us that racism can prepare the ground for bloodshed.

As Primo Levi, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, noted, “Few countries can be considered immune to a future tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties, religious or political fanaticism, and racist attributions."

Racism fundamentally conflicts with the central principles of democracy, which, beyond elections, must involve continuous participation in the political process by the people. Racism and racial discrimination sharply limit opportunities for political participation and representation and the protection and inclusion of minorities and other groups. A society that does not fully respect the equal right of all individuals to participate in public life and decision-making is not fundamentally a democratic society.

Democracy seeks to respectfully accommodate differences – whether ethnic, racial, religious, political or others; to enable all individuals to fully realise their potential; and to extend the full and equal protection of the State to all. It demands an active respect for the other – every other.


Resolution 29/20 recognizes the importance of freedom of speech and expression in the promotion of tolerance and respect for others, and in the construction of pluralistic and inclusive societies. These freedoms constitute the cornerstone of every democratic society, because they are enabling rights —rights that allow individuals to argue for their enjoyment of all other rights, from fair trials and free elections to decent living conditions. So as a matter of fundamental principle, the limitation of any kind of speech or expression must remain an exception.

But speech can be an incitement to action — in some cases, very violent and hateful action.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in its Articles 19 and 20, as well as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in Article 4, guarantee freedom of opinion and expression and provide guidance on the prohibition of “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

When considering reports submitted by States, CERD has emphasized the importance of prohibiting incitement to racial hatred or violence. In its concluding observations, the Committee consistently reminds States of their obligation to ban all organizations which promote and incite racial discrimination.

More recently, the Rabat Plan of Action has addressed the need to carefully determine the threshold of incitement to racial national, ethnic hatred or violence.

In order to ensure that democratic values and human rights are not undermined by racism and racial discrimination, a number of good practices can be identified in various spheres:

HRC Resolution 29/20 underlines the fundamental role of education in eliminating racial and other negative stereotypes. Human rights education and awareness-raising – not just in schools, but also including teachers, and members of political parties – can play a strong role to promote respect for human rights, including the equality of all. States should take all opportunities, including those provided by the Internet and social media, to counter the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred and to promote the values of equality, non-discrimination, diversity and democracy.

Effective judicial protection and remedies for victims of racial discrimination is also fundamental. States have the obligation to duly prosecute and sanction those responsible for racist and xenophobic violence. They should also introduce provisions indicating that the commission of an offence with a racist or xenophobic motivation or aim constitutes an aggravating circumstance resulting in heavier sanctions.

I would particularly like to emphasize the responsibility of political parties, platforms and organizations in taking decisive action against racist discourse. I encourage them to develop internal disciplinary measures against public statements and actions that encourage or incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

It is also fundamental that public authorities and elected officials openly speak out against discrimination and intolerance in all fields. All racial, national and ethnic groups, and women in particular, should be represented in all local and national institutions.

Mr President,

I urge all States and leaders to demonstrate not only political but also moral leadership in fighting racism, discrimination and xenophobia much more vigorously.

We should all promote diversity as a force for enrichment for all humanity. The equal, and inalienable, rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom and co-existence. They are essential to peace, and they are therefore essential to all of us.

Thank you.