Marking international day, UN experts call for urgent action to end racial discrimination, in wake of New Zealand anti-Muslim attack

UNICEF/Claudio Versiani Students watch a performance by their peers at Barros Barreto School, in Salvador, Brazil. The performance tackled social issues such as racism and gender discrimination.. Photo: UNICEF/Claudio Versiani

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


States must take urgent action, to “stem the tide of hate and discrimination” and ramping up of “ethno-nationalist populism”, which helped fuel the deadly shootings in two New Zealand mosques last Friday by a self-declared white supremacist, several top UN officials and human rights experts have stressed, marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

“Racial discrimination still has not been banished to the history books. This vicious form of exclusion and intolerance continues to manifest itself on the sports field, in the media, on the streets, in the workplace and even in the corridors of power,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, once again, we are seeing the ugly face of racial discrimination presented in public discourse,” she added, explaining that that is why this year’s theme for the International Day is ‘Mitigating and countering national populism and extreme supremacist ideology’.

Linking the day with the massacre of worshippers in New Zealand, that left 50 dead and dozens injured, two independent UN human rights experts said in statement that the tragedy “reminds us that racism, xenophobia and religious hatred are deadly and that the result of ethno-nationalist populism and supremacist ideologies is racial violence, exclusion and discrimination.”

The experts, Tendayi Achiume and Michal Balcerzak, added that States should “act immediately to stem the tide of hate and discrimination, to protect vulnerable populations and to ensure racial equality,” the experts stressed, explaining their dismay over the “role that public authorities continue to play in stoking racial discrimination and intolerance by acts of commission and omission.”

For over 50 years since the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which entered into force in 1969, the UN has been tackling the issue, calling upon States to act immediately to end racism and to ensure equality and dignity for everyone.

“Hate speech is entering the mainstream, spreading like wildfire through social media and radio.  It is spreading in liberal democracies and authoritarian States alike,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “These dark forces menace democratic values, social stability and peace.  When people are attacked, physically, verbally or on social media because of their race, religion or ethnicity, all of society is diminished.  It is crucial for us all to join hands, stand up and defend the principles of equality and human dignity,” he explained.

Ms. Achiume and Mr. Balcerzak noted that “States’ politics and legislation seldom reflect the urgency of this obligation” and that “instead, States and leaders have deployed political rhetoric that demonises racialised groups and emboldens supremacist ideologues.”

“Some States even deny the existence of racial discrimination or minorities within their borders,” insisted Ms. Achiume and Mr. Balcerzak, adding that “the work of fighting intolerance and discrimination is not for States and public authorities alone” and that “every single person, especially those who enjoy racial privilege on a daily basis, must play their part to put an end to the racism, xenophobia and related intolerance that prevail today.”

The sentiment was echoed by UNESCO chief Azoulay who explained that “the fight against discrimination is one we must all lead”. She further noted that “the internet can be fertile ground for the spread of racial discrimination, xenophobia and supremacist ideologies, often targeting migrants and refugee, as well as people of African descent”.

To tackle this, UNESCO – which is mandated to increase awareness worldwide on the issue – has developed tools for media and information literacy, to combat discriminatory attitudes online and ensure a safe online space that enhances mutual understanding, critical thinking and intercultural dialogue.

In addition, Ms. Azoulay noted that “on a daily basis, racial discrimination continues to silently deprive people of their basic rights to employment, housing and a social life embodied through iniquitous laws”.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a video statement in which she stated that “racism is the opposite of everything we stand for,” and that ideas of “racial, religious, ethnic or national supremacy have no basis whatsoever in reality”:

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