Skip to main content

Countdown to Human Rights Day

The time for human rights is now!

Learn more

Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Panel on the Mitigation and countering of rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologiesIn commemoration of the International Day for the elimination of racial discrimination

15 March 2019

40th session of the Human Rights Council

Statement by UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

11 March 2019

Distinguished President,
Colleagues, Friends,

Racism is contrary to everything we stand for. Both as a United Nations body, and as an entity made up of Member States committed to the implementation of the Universal Declaration, this Council stands for an end to racism, an end to intolerance and xenophobia, and an end to discrimination of every kind. 

The murderous Islamophobic and terrorist attack, just hours ago, on two mosques in New Zealand is yet another terrible reminder that racism kills. Now and on March 21, International Day for the elimination of racial discrimination, we renew our promise to the world's people that we stand with the victims, in their grief and their demand for justice; and that we will struggle – every day of every year – against all forms of racism.

Mr President,

Today's panel discussion is prompted by the General Assembly's resolution 73/262, which expresses alarm at the rise of movements based on racist and extremist ideologies spreading notions of racial superiority, and fuelling racism and xenophobia.

The resolution proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; that all have the potential to contribute constructively to the development and well-being of their societies; and that "any doctrine of racial superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous and must be rejected."

What exactly is nationalist populism? In 2017, the late Kofi Annan described populists as “charismatic individuals, or fake prophets, promising simplistic solutions to people’s grievances through radical policies that dismiss institutions and laws as either irrelevant or inconvenient.”

A populist attack on democratic institutions ­– including the independence of justice, of the press, and of a broad civic space – is compounded by a fixation on defining who the “real” people are, and demonising the "other": those who are somehow less deserving of rights and a voice. The bedrock of nationalist populism is its demonization of migrants and minorities, and it thrives on a sense of crisis, besiegement and threat. Political leaders and parties promoting nationalist populism often deploy overt racism, explicit Islamophobia, implicit anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred and bigotry. Can anyone claim surprise when racist and xenophobic attacks increase?

As the GA resolution highlights, these and other ideas of racial, religious, ethnic or national supremacy have no basis in reality. For example, a recent study in Germany of 11,000 communes showed support for an anti-migrant party was "markedly lower" in places where refugees had been housed since 2015, compared with communes with no refugees. Where voters have had extensive contact with migrants, the populist vote tends to be lower than in areas where migrants and refugees can become the subject of fear.

Nationalism and populism offer no real solutions to the complex challenges societies face. They are often grounded in conspiracy theories, echoing and amplifying through social media, where unchecked lies become reality. In places where unemployment rises as people are replaced by machines or overseas workers, these movements make empty promises about national pride to people who feel powerless and unrecognised. They sow the seeds of resentment and anger; and they harvest hatred and violence.

This nationalism is the very opposite of patriotism. It sharpens divisions, induces violence and makes society more unsafe.

Mr President,

Ideas of racial superiority and racial supremacy have driven wars, oppression, exploitation and horrific suffering. Although humanity has never fully eradicated them, we have worked to push them back to the most obscure corners of society.

Those past efforts show us pathways, which can help us undermine and combat the advance of these ideas today.

The International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination encourages firm legislation to prevent the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or racial hatred, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts, particularly by public authorities or public institutions, national or local.

The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) emphasises the key role of politicians and political parties, and encourages specific, concrete steps to promote equality, solidarity and non-discrimination.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's General Recommendation No. 35 on Combating racist hate speech, adopted in 2013, notes specific types of hate speech and explores a range of measures well beyond the criminalization of hate speech.

The Rabat Plan of Action also suggests important safeguards relating to the restrictions of free speech, and recommendations regarding those expressions, which should be criminally prohibited. Together with the Beirut Declaration, it emphasises that political and religious leaders have a crucial role in speaking out firmly and promptly against intolerance, discriminatory stereotyping and instances of hate speech.

These and other international and regional frameworks also suggest a much bigger role for human rights education campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives based on respect for diversity, and in the truth.

We need to openly condemn all messages – especially political messages or discourses – which disseminate ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, or which incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. As the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the DDPA recommended in 2012, educational programmes should address the negative stereotypes that continue to result from colonialism and other forms of historical injustice.

The role of digital and social media in whipping up hate speech means that both governments and companies need to take careful and principled action to protect fundamental rights online. Universally agreed human rights provide essential guidance on problems that transcend borders and cultures, particularly for situations, where overbroad approaches could undermine free expression, while failure to act endangers other rights.

Mr President,

You can care about your country and still care about the world.

You can care about your community and your family, and respect the diversity of others.

To promote one's own rights at the expense of others' is the highway to destruction – for all of society.

Our Office will continue to take the strongest possible stand against racism, discrimination and intolerance of every kind, and I ask this body and all Member States to do the same.

Thank you Mr President.