United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Secretary-General to the World Conference against Racism

High Commissioner's statement
on the International Day on the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination

21 March 2000

Every year on 21 March we reflect on the progress made towards the elimination of racial discrimination from the world. This year, the significance of the International Day on the Elimination of Racial discrimination is accentuated by the fact that preparations are well under way for the Third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The first Preparatory Committee for the World Conference will be held in May; a second Preparatory Committee will take place in May 2001 and the Conference proper will be held in South Africa in September 2001.

The World Conference against Racism will place the spotlight firmly on the problem of racism in all its forms. It comes at an appropriate time, firstly because we need to reevaluate what has and has not been achieved and, secondly because we are witnessing a notable rise in racism and xenophobia. The return of the far right in Europe is a reminder that old race hatreds, which one might have thought had gone away, are still very much alive. Side by side with these old enmities are new manifestations of racism and xenophobia – hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers, discrimination against migrant workers, Roma and indigenous peoples.

The international community must rise to the challenge of the World Conference. Racism persists in spite of the work of the Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, two previous world conferences and international decades to combat racism. The message is clear: racist attitudes run deep and are fed from many sources. The first requirement is a full understanding of the origins and causes of racism in society. Already, as part of the build up to the World Conference, several valuable studies have been made which will shed light on the nature of this stubborn problem.

I call on all of the actors involved - governments, international bodies, the academic community, non-governmental organisations - to contribute to the preparations for the World Conference by examining the issue in all its aspects and proposing ways of overcoming it. I call on all people of good will to take an interest and spread awareness of the Conference and its aims. It is vital that the World Conference should be seen, not as a matter reserved for official bodies, but as a people’s conference. It is people who suffer from the impact of racism and people who perpetrate racism and xenophobia. Only through the engagement of all the people in all the regions of the world will the World Conference be a success.

Racism strikes at the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaimed that everyone is born free and equal in dignity and rights. Instead, racism posits the notion that some are innately superior to others. All those who believe in human rights have a responsibility to face up to the threat which this pernicious attitude poses. A practical way to do this will be to participate actively in the preparations for, and activities connected with, the World Conference against Racism.