Int. Herald Tribune
Bigotry and bias are alive and well

Paris, Thursday, March 23, 2000

By Mary Robinson


GENEVA - The rise in Europe of a far right nurturing nostalgia for the Nazi past, the recent attacks on migrants in southern Spain, anti-foreigner attitudes in several of the economically better-off African countries and institutionalized racism in some police forces and prison systems: This grim and, sadly, incomplete list is a stark reminder that bigotry and bias are alive and well as we mark this week the first International Day Against Racial Discrimination of the 21st century.

Tackling racism and xenophobia must be one of the world's top priorities. The affirmation in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - "Everyone is born free and equal in dignity and rights" - has not become a reality. Though international standards have been set for preventing and eliminating discrimination, social and political realities undermine the promise of the law.

Half a century after the declaration was adopted, racism and xenophobia are again on the rise. In the last decade alone we have seen genocide in Rwanda and "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia. And today, crises continue to challenge principles of equal treatment:

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Indigenous peoples have been marginalized and pushed into the more inhospitable parts of their territories. Their rights to land and natural resources are tenuous or not recognized. United Nations human rights bodies are elaborating standards for their protection and remedies against violations, but there is a long way to go before members of these groups can obtain equality.

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Migrant workers are often exploited. They are welcomed when there is a shortage of labor but are the first to be fired. The international instrument drafted to ensure their rights - the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families - has not been ratified by a single industrialized country.

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Widespread violations of human rights have given rise to a massive flow of refugees. Much of the violence and armed conflict of recent years could have been averted if early action had been taken at the national level to end discrimination and respond to justified grievances. The world must accept that some utterly vulnerable groups face conditions that leave them no choice but flight, and they should be helped.

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The right to seek asylum has become increasingly difficult to exercise because of "nonadmission" policies by most industrialized countries. Visa requirements, sanctions against airlines, the isolation of applicants and processing of applications for asylum abroad have prevented many would-be refugees from escaping persecution.

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The Roma community (gypsies) is the object of social discrimination in many countries. Europe in particular is at a loss about what to do. Well-intentioned but paternalistic efforts to assimilate the Roma to the dominant Western cultures have failed.

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Hate speech is increasing. Racists have discovered a new tool by which they can spread their virulent and destructive prejudices. Hate speech is disseminated on the Internet at little financial cost and, in some countries, without the risk of penalty. In Europe, there is a particular fear of this new avenue for racist propaganda, and efforts are being made to bring it under control. But racists can now disseminate their hateful material through U.S.-based sites, protected by the First Amendment of the constitution.

A World Conference Against Racism will be held in South Africa next year. It must come up with a practical plan of action to fulfill the pledge to promote and encourage universal respect for human rights for all.



Original article