White House Interagency Task Force for the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Sources, Causes, Forms and Contemporary Manifestations

Northwestern University School of Law
Remarks of Douglass Cassel, Director
Center for International Human Rights
Northwestern University School of Law

September 2000

"The United Nations and the Struggle for Racial Justice"

The theme of the United Nations World Conference deserves support in its full scope - which covers not only racism and racial discrimination, but also xenophobia and related intolerance. All of these evils require serious attention. To keep these remarks brief, however, I ask that you permit me to use simply the shorthand term, "racism," to cover all four.

I will touch on four topics:

1. A thumbnail sketch of the history of the UN and the struggle for racial equality,

2. A brief overview of UN mechanisms for addressing racism and xenophobia,

3. Observations on the global sources and forms of racism and xenophobia, and

4. Concluding notes on differing conditions for combating racism in this country and elsewhere.

1. History.

In the early years of the United Nations, the campaign against race discrimination dominated the global human rights agenda. The campaign had two related demands. One was to end discrimination against individuals and groups within nations. In 1945 the UN Charter promised equal rights for all without regard to race. In the United States, however, racial segregation remained generally legal until nine years later, when the supreme court in 1954 outlawed public school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.

The other demand was for an end to subjugation by white nations of black, brown and yellow peoples in Africa and Asia. During World War II Europe self-destructed, collapsing the military and moral pretensions of colonialism. From 1945 to 1975 decolonization swept the southern hemisphere, adding over a hundred new member states to the UN.

Throughout that era racial equality drove the UN human rights agenda. The first human rights claim against a specific country brought before the General Assembly in 1946 was against apartheid in South Africa. The first Security Council action on rights came in response to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when police killed 67 blacks in South Africa. The first major UN human rights treaty was the Convention Against Racial Discrimination, adopted in 1965. And the first UN human rights enforcement mechanism was a committee set up to monitor apartheid in 1967.

These actions legitimized and institutionalized human rights work within the UN. They also contributed to a historic achievement: the fall of apartheid. Although many forces supported the South African liberation struggle, the international isolation imposed on apartheid by the UN played an important role.

Elsewhere, however, the campaign for racial equality within nations stalled. Overtly discriminatory laws were repealed in most places. But institutional racism and de facto discrimination remained -- and remain today -- rampant and ubiquitous. The most recent resolution of the UN Human Rights Commission repeatedly expresses concern that racism is growing, not diminishing.

Among the obstacles to effective UN action for racial progress has been north-south resentment. Even while the civil rights movement pushed the American public and government to take steps against racism at home, the U.S. -- and western Europe -- became wary of UN fora on race relations, for several reasons.

One was European racism. As Theo van Boven of The Netherlands reported in 1999, "for both historical and present-day considerations Europe is not very receptive to United Nations strategies in the matter of racism ..."

Another was U.S. fear of UN interference, initially with Jim Crow, and even now with our own politically delicate race relations. In 1947, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP filed a lengthy petition with the UN challenging U.S. race discrimination against Negroes, as they were called then, as a violation of the UN Charter.

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California land laws discriminating against Japanese Americans, as a denial of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. Conservatives in the Senate and elsewhere were alarmed, however, because four justices opined, as an alternate ground, that the discriminatory laws also violated the UN Charter, a treaty of the U.S. which is part of the supreme law of the land under article VI of the U.S. Constitution, and therefore prevails over inconsistent state laws. As a result, Washington backed away not only from UN race initiatives, but from UN human rights treaties generally.

Another reason for U.S. and western European antipathy toward UN race initiatives was the fact that in the 1-country, 1-vote UN General Assembly, they could be outvoted by former colonies with different priorities. The situation was aggravated by the fact that many of these newly independent nations were socialist or otherwise inclined toward Moscow.

In addition, in 1975, western public and political support for the UN on issues of race was further eroded by the UN General Assembly resolution, since repealed, declaring Zionism racist.

So when the UN declared its first two Decades Against Racism
in the 1970s and 1980s, the west -- and its funding -- essentially boycotted them. The U.S. did not even attend the first two World Conferences Against Racism, held in Geneva in 1978 and 1983. By the early 1990s, outside its hand in the defeat of apartheid, the UN had little to show for all its rhetoric against racism.

In addition, by the 1990's most UN members, even former colonies, came to realize that they, too, had problems of racism. How much easier to blast away at apartheid in South Africa, than to face the color line in one's own closet.

Once apartheid fell, international attention slowly began to turn to the nearly universal reality of racism -- and its potential for the kind of bloodshed seen in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

Awareness of racism has also been heightened by globalization. Turkey pays attention when unemployed German youth firebomb its migrant workers. Sri Lanka gets the message when wealthy Persian Gulf State families abuse their Sri Lankan domestic workers.

The UN has now, as we know, called the World Conference for next year to address such issues, and has also declared 2001 the International Year Against Racism. But the UN is still to a degree living the history I have described. The third UN Decade Against Racism is more than half over now, with little to show for itself, unless this conference -- and the preparations for it and the follow-up afterward -- manage to turn the corner.

Yet funding for the conference itself, and the regional preparatory meetings, has been shaky. The real concern here is not the money. Somehow enough funds will be found to hold the meetings and the conference. The worry is that the financial difficulties are merely surface indications of something deeper and more troubling: a lack of commitment either to racial equality, or to mobilizing the UN to confront racism globally.

As in all things UN, if the effort is to be meaningful, it cannot be left to governments. Much will depend on the activism and effectiveness of non-governmental organizations ("NGO's"). The White House Interagency Task Force is to be commended for organizing these meetings around the country, for involving NGO's and community leaders, informing them about the World Conference and promoting interest in the UN process.

2. UN Mechanisms for Promoting Racial Equality

As a result of the history described above, UN mechanisms for addressing racism are generally weak.

The principal UN treaty on race is the ambitiously titled International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. As I mentioned, it was the first of the principal human rights treaties administered by the UN. It now has more than 150 states parties, out of the 190-odd UN members. It authorizes affirmative action measures, called "special measures" in the treaty and other UN documents. It defines discrimination to include actions whose purpose or effect is discriminatory. The Committee on Racial Discrimination, which monitors the treaty, defines a discriminatory effect as one which has an "unjustifiable disparate impact." When the U.S. ratified the convention in 1994, we made no reservation on this point.

Countries which join the treaty are required to file an initial report on their compliance within one year, and then to file follow-up reports every two years thereafter. Few do so on time. The U.S. ratified the treaty in 1994. Its initial report was due in 1995. As of this writing in early September 2000, the U.S. is now almost five years overdue for its initial report, and is also delinquent on its second and third reports. I am informed, however, that we can expect the U.S. report to be filed in the near future.

Also, the committee has very little funding. As a result, it cannot meet often and cannot do much investigation.

Even some countries which join the treaty take reservations. When we ratified the treaty, the U.S. made several reservations, understandings or declarations. We declined to prohibit hate speech, to the extent such speech is protected by our Constitution and laws. We partially exempted private discrimination, covered to some extent by the treaty, but which we allow to be covered only to the extent already prohibited by U.S. law or the Constitution. We refused to accept World Court jurisdiction over disputes between countries concerning interpretation or application of the treaty, saying that we will decide whether to allow the Court to hear any such cases only on a case-by-case basis. We also expressed an understanding on federalism. We further declared that the convention is not self-executing, which means that it cannot serve as the basis for a lawsuit in our courts. And we said that nothing it can authorize to take any action which is unconstitutional.

To my knowledge no country has ever taken a case under the convention before the World Court. The convention also has an optional procedure, under which countries can permit individual victims to file complaints of racial discrimination with the committee. But fewer than 30 countries have opted to allow such complaints, and even then, few complaints are filed. The U.S. has not opted to accept this procedure.

Besides the convention, the UN Human Rights Commission has a Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. He conducts inspections and studies, receives and inquires about complaints, and submits an annual report with recommendations to the commission. His role is useful in bringing attention to problems and advice to the commission, and in resolving some grievances. However, he has no binding power, and operates on a shoestring, making short visits to only about three countries each year.

In addition, the International Labor Organization has a Convention (no. 111) on Racial Discrimination in Employment. Adopted in 1958, it now has 143 states parties; the U.S. is not a party. And there is a 1960 UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education. While it permits disputes between countries to be taken before the World Court, again, to my knowledge, no such case has ever been brought.

The UN has no treaty on xenophobia. A Convention on Rights of Migrant Workers, adopted in 1990, has not come into effect because too few countries have joined it. But there are signs of progress: the Human Rights Commission recently decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, and the General Assembly this February adopted a resolution urging all states to protect the rights of migrants.

Other UN human rights mechanisms also contain prohibitions on racial and other discrimination. Some have complaint procedures. While there is not time to elaborate here, these provisions have not generally been effective tools against discrimination. Much could be done -- if there were political will -- to improve existing UN machinery for implementing the international commitments to treat all people without regard to race.

3. Sources and Forms of Racism

As a lawyer, not a social scientist, I was surprised by the apparent lack of scientific evidence and studies on sources and forms of contemporary racism in the UN and NGO documents submitted to the UN for the World Conference. I infer the following, impressionistically and anecdotally, from these documents and from my experience:

(1) Legacy of Slavery. One source of contemporary racism is plainly the legacy of slavery. This can be seen not only in the U.S., but also in such countries as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela. In all these countries, persons of African descent still have not overcome past inequalities in education, employment, income, social acceptance, and positions of power in the public and private sectors.

(2) Legacy of Conquest. The indigenous inhabitants of the U.S. and nearly all of Latin America likewise have yet to emerge from the inequalities to which they were subjected by the European conquest.

(3) Legacy of Colonialism. Past colonialism continues to be at the root of contemporary ethnic conflict, especially in Africa, in at least three ways:

(a) Borders. The departing colonial powers left national borders which do not correspond to the tribal and ethnic geography of Africa. The result has been ongoing ethnic conflict within such nations as Nigeria.

(b) Privileged Groups. In the continental equivalent of the "house nigger" syndrome, the colonial powers favored some African groups over others, aggravating ethnic resentments. For example, the Belgians favored the Tutsis in Rwanda, a factor which later contributed to the Hutu genocide against Tutsis in 1994.

(c) Conflict Resolution. Colonial powers destroyed traditional, tribal institutions of conflict resolution, without replacing them either by new forms of mediation or by the rule of law.

(4) Globalization. Globalization exacerbates racial tensions in at least two main ways:

(a) Insecurity. With its churning of industries and jobs, globalization increases economic insecurity, especially for industrial workers. This accounts in part for the recent rise of neo-Nazis in countries like Germany, Austria, France and Britain. It is no accident that Germany's neo-Nazi movement is strongest in the former East Germany, where unemployment remains highest. The result is violence against Turkish, North African and Asian workers in Europe and their families. And -- once more -- against Jews.

A similar pattern can be seen in the U.S. California adopted the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in the early 1990's, at a time when that state was mired in economic recession. Now the recovery of the West Coast economy has helped to take some of the steam out of anti-immigrant attitudes and initiatives.

(b) Migration. Globalization both stimulates and facilitates migration of workers of different races. Resentment of competition may then translate into racial hostility, again as in Germany. Alternatively, racial differences may make privileged employers in places like the Gulf States and Japan more prone to exploit domestic and other immigrant workers from South and East Asia.

(5) Political Opportunism. Opportunistic politicians fan the flames of racial hatred for partisan or even personal advantage. In 1989 Slobodan Milosevic went to the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo, where a battle occurred hundreds of years ago, to declare his intention to re-take Kosovo for the Serbs. Other examples are Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia, the Hutu Power movement in Rwanda, and the likes of David Duke in the U.S.

(6) Traditional Discrimination. Traditional racial, ethnic or caste discrimination, often economically beneficial to the those who discriminate, is an important source. A clear example is the plight of the 160 million Dalits, or "untouchables," in India. The Indian government, denying that this is racial discrimination, wants to keep the Dalit issue out of the World Conference. But racial or not, the repression of the Dalits should be addressed at the Conference because, at the very least, it is "related intolerance."

(7) Institutional and Systemic Racism. This is one of the most widespread and pernicious forms because it lends itself so easily to self-righteous denial. Many Europeans disclaim any racial bias against the Roma people (often called "gypsies"), arguing that they object only to the way the Roma live and behave. But what are the historical roots of the Roma lifestyle? How has history shaped their current educational and employment status? Institutional racism, which seems transparent at a distance, is often not recognized by those most directly involved.

(8) Inequality. Inequality is itself a source of racism. On the one hand, when racial discrimination traps a group in poverty, the more affluent group then tends to associate -- and deprecate -- the victim group as innately poor, as in the case of the attitudes of many whites toward African Americans and Native Americans. On the other hand, when the economically privileged tend to be, or are perceived as being disproportionately of a different racial or ethnic group, resentment and even hatred can result. Hence the violence toward the Chinese ethnic minority in Indonesia and, in part, toward Jews in Europe.

In contrast, research suggests that people are less discriminatory toward members of other groups when they encounter each other "in relations of equal status."

(9) Fear. By itself, fear is a powerful engine of racism. How did Hutu leaders persuade their people to slaughter the Tutsis? Partly through instilling fear: they told them that the Tutsi army was invading from Uganda, and that the choice was to kill their neighbors, or be killed themselves.

(10) Cultural Differences and Stereotypes. These seem to be a universal component of racism.

(11) Double or Multiple Discrimination. People of different races often suffer greater discrimination because they are also of a different religion, language or nationality. They are victimized even more when they are also members of vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the aged and the poor. One cannot isolate only one source of discrimination -- race -- and resolve it, without simultaneously addressing the other factors.

(12) Innate. I am no social psychologist, but I suspect there is something inherent in human nature that makes most of us more comfortable with people who look, dress, eat and otherwise act more as we do. Differences inherently tend to generate fear or seeds of hostility. If this hypothesis is correct, curative measures might include education as well as greater communication and interaction among different racial groups.

4. Different Conditions for Ameliorating Racism

Can the strategies and tactics of the U.S. civil rights movement be exported to other countries? To a degree, yes. But we must bear in mind that much of what has been done here presumes at least a relative degree of the rule of law. In this country most elections are relatively fair, the courts relatively independent, the press relatively free. American civil rights approaches that rely on the ballot box, the courts or the media may not be effective in countries that lack free institutions -- which is to say, much of Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America. Litigation might be useful in, say, South Africa, India, Germany or Costa Rica, but not likely in Congo, Burma, Russia or Peru.

Educational strategies may also differ. Some countries are too poor to afford even basic education. Educational strategies must be reshaped in countries with high percentages of illiteracy, especially among racial minorities, and even more among their women.

At least two lessons emerge. One is that what works in the U.S. will not necessarily work or be the most effective strategy elsewhere.

Second is that one cannot battle racism in isolation. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna declared that all human rights are interrelated and interdependent. For people who live in countries overwhelmed by poverty and repression, without independent courts, legislatures or press, where activists and NGO's can exercise freedom of association and expression only on pain of death, the fight for racial equality is unlikely to succeed on its own.

This does not mean abandoning the struggle for racial justice in countries where conditions are inhospitable. It means, instead, broadening the struggle for rights to racial fairness, in order to demand respect for all basic human rights, for everyone.


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