On March 21, 1960, dozens of unarmed people peacefully protesting the infamous “pass law”, which violated the dignity of black women and men, were murdered by police in South Africa. The reaction to the massacre was one of the catalysts for the international human rights protection system that we know today.
In 1965, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was approved, the first human rights treaty with an independent supervisory body. In 1979, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that declared March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Unfortunately, all the architecture put together by the UN to face racial discrimination was unable to deal with its extraordinary capacity for transmutation. Nearly 75 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved, racial hate speech has become commonplace. There is a clear feeling that the moral and legal barriers that until recently prevented racial prejudices from going beyond the domain of ideas and culminating in physical or symbolic violence have been progressively knocked down in defiance of the social contract enshrined in liberal democracies.
A sense of disenchantment with the growing levels of racism and intolerance in the world is inevitable. This is not a new phenomenon. One of the novelties is that racists have lost the shame of saying what, until recently, would be interpreted as unconscious prejudice. There is nothing unconscious about what we witness. Everywhere, one notices the intention to reach the heart of human dignity.
Political populism, economic disparities, and social inequalities are at the heart of current manifestations of racial violence, intolerance, and hatred. It is a perfect scenario for choosing favourite scapegoats to justify manifestations of what Albert Camus understood as a form of “resentment”. Feeling excluded from economic and social power, access to quality education, and decision-making, radicalised people and groups have hand-picked their objects of hatred, something made possible by a crisis of indefinite permanence.
In rare moments in history, it was so relevant to prevent our identities from being confused and manipulated with the intention of inciting prejudice and discrimination. After all, our identities, as Anthony Appiah has reminded us, are less a mirror than a canvas - and everyone has a paintbrush. It is this constant exercise of redrawing our screen that allows people to reaffirm their dignity and build common projects for life, nation, and world.
The history of human rights shows that civil society movements have achieved their greatest achievements by pushing the limits of the possible. Millennials and Generation Z, who are already at the forefront of the fight against the climate crisis, are indispensable allies in tackling racism and racial discrimination. But young people should not be left alone in this effort. Governments and the private sector must abandon the misconception that they have a neutral role in the fight to eliminate discrimination and promote diversity and inclusion.
One of the lessons I have drawn from my experience as an expert on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is that there is no innate atavistic racism in human beings. Discriminatory acts are almost always motivated by specific political and economic projects, and not by abstract theses about human nature or supposed differences between 'races'.
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The most important achievement of the United Nations in the quest to eliminate racial discrimination was its characterisation as a phenomenon present in all societies in the world, without exception.
-Mr Albuquerque is a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination