They have in common their humanity and the denial of full equality by reason of their birth. They are the victims of the politics of exclusion, stigmatization, and scapegoating--or of targeted neglect and social invisibility.
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) defines "racial discrimination" broadly and concretely. Adopted in 1965, its definition of racial discrimination includes "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."
The reality of racism does not turn only on the definition of the groups that are oppressed, or on the much disputed concept of race itself, but may be driven largely by the perceptions of the oppressor. Racism blights the lives of groups defined primarily by ethnicity, caste, or an identity shaped by religion. Unlike class or other indicators of social status, these are attributes by which people are instantly identified and which can not readily be shed. Even if the very idea of race is discounted, racism is a very real and deadly phenomenon.
The convention on racial discrimination requires states to guarantee to all individuals the enjoyment of rights without such discrimination--and to ensure that public policies are discriminatory neither in purpose nor in effect. In many countries, the discriminatory effect of public policy, regardless of its intent, serves to lock people away from the exercise of civil and political rights--and by doing so bars their way to the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights.
International action to combat racism has long been on the agenda of the United Nations and regional intergovernmental bodies, as well as the object of campaigning by a vast constellation of nongovernmental organizations. The apartheid regime in South Africa was a focus of much of this international effort, particularly after the dismantling of legal segregation in the United States and the gradual efforts to remedy its consequences. The end of apartheid in 1994 was a landmark in this struggle, but the challenge remained. Just one month before Nelson Mandela's May 9, 1994, election to the South African presidency, Hutu extremists launched a campaign of genocide against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda.
Racism and intolerance in Africa's Great Lakes region and elsewhere persisted in many forms even where the basis of "otherness" itself was clouded. The Hutu-Tutsi divide in Rwanda and neighboring states was itself founded on a blurring over time of social strata into something approximating ethnicity. The so-called "ethnic cleansing" of the former Yugoslavia, in turn, was driven by a racism defined by ethnicity, religion, language, and national origin. In the year 2000, millions faced violence, internal displacement, the arbitrary loss of their nationality, or expulsion from their countries by reason of their descent. Millions more faced pervasive racism that was less apparent to the casual observer--but was in its effect often no less pernicious.
Human Rights Watch in 2000 brought a new focus to the issue of racial discrimination as it affects migrants and refugees and populations identified by caste. The organization's work concentrated on the discriminatory impact of state policy and practice in two areas. These were discrimination in the determination of nationality and citizenship rights, and discrimination in criminal justice and in the public administration of state institutions, services, and resources. These issues are discussed further below.
The World Conference Against Racism
The Third World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance will be held in South Africa from August 31 to September 7, 2001. The conference will be the first forum of its kind since the end of apartheid in South Africa (previous world conferences were held in 1978 and 1983). As such, it can build upon the lessons learned in abolishing the apartheid system, while addressing the racist effect of other policies and practices that continue to afflict whole populations. Its convening reflects both the achievements of the international community and the ongoing challenges it faced in combatting racism. It should celebrate the end of apartheid--but there will be little else to celebrate unless the conference itself catalyzes real introspection by participating governments and real mechanisms for change.
With the end of apartheid, there was some concern that in this third conference the continuing challenge of racism would be portrayed by governments as largely a matter of education, control, and punishment of ordinary people--to confront racism which was in some way inherent, spontaneous, and natural. There seemed a real risk that the international community would focus first on treating racism as a social disease, its vectors of transmission the ordinary citizen, private groups, and unscrupulous Internet service providers. In initial planning sessions, the role of governments and government officials at all levels, from education ministries to community police, in imposing and enforcing policies with racist effect went largely unvoiced. Rather, governments vied to hold themselves up as exemplars in identifying "best practices" in eliminating overt racism from public policy and private practice and in their pedagogic efforts to preach tolerance. The identification and remedying of the racist effect of government policies and practices where racist intent was not clearly present were largely off the agenda.
The preparations for the World Conference were undertaken by governments and civil society alike. Early consultations generated new nongovernmental alliances, bringing together legal reform groups, advocates for migrants and refugees, women's rights activists, faith-based organizations, civil rights activists and human rights groups, veteran campaigners of the anti-apartheid movement, a wide spectrum of minority rights groups, and other grass-roots activists. These nongovernmental organizations have already organized scores of consultative meetings in many countries, while participating in the preparatory meetings, expert seminars, and regional conferences of the United Nations' formal program. The consultative meetings and the expert seminars have already made a significant contribution to the substance of the World Conference and should go some way toward encouraging government representatives to take seriously their responsibilities to combat racism.
The Preparatory Committee for the World Conference identified five broad themes for the provisional agenda of the conference at its first session in May 2000. These were the sources, causes, forms, and contemporary manifestations of racism; the victims; measures of prevention, education and protection; the provision of effective remedies; and strategies to achieve full and effective equality. In some of these areas considerable dissent was registered by powerful governments. Two governments of countries in which caste was the focus of discriminatory treatment--India and Japan--called for the exclusion of descent-based caste discrimination from the deliberations. Despite India's massive lobbying effort toward exclusion of victims of caste discrimination, however, there was an apparent consensus that the conference would be inclusive in its identification of the victims of racism and related intolerance.
The real break in consensus emerged on the matter of remedies. A draft slate of themes prepared by the African Group of delegates had been broadly acceptable, apart from its fourth thematic point, the question of remedies. Dissent turned primarily on the reference to compensation, with former European colonial powers and the United States adamantly opposed to language that implied their acknowledgment of material obligations to remedy past abuses.