26 February 1999

Original: ENGLISH

Fifty-fifth session

Sessional open-ended working group
to review and formulate proposals
for the World Conference against
Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

The causes of, and remedies for, racial discrimination

Background paper prepared by Mr. Michael Banton, member of the
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,* in
accordance with paragraph 51 of Commission resolution 1998/26

1. Racial discrimination is the less favourable treatment of persons because they are thought to belong in particular racial groups. It is one of the forms of discrimination which are to be prohibited in fulfilment of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to article 26 of this Covenant “the law shall prohibit discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

2. Responding to a request from the Economic and Social Council, the Secretary-General in 1949 published a memorandum entitled The Main Types and Causes of Discrimination (E/CN.4/Sub.2/40/Rev.1). It consisted of a text of 57 pages with a selected bibliography of 30 pages and was designed to assist the work of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. The memorandum discussed the social and juridical fundamentals of discrimination, its connections with prejudice, and legal and educational measures for its prevention. Though there have been some subsequent reports of a related character (which are summarized in the manual entitled United Nations Action in the Field of Human Rights (ST/HR/2/Rev.4 at pp. 155-163), a full-scale updating of the 1949 memorandum would now be a major task. This study offers a small-scale and partial updating which reflects the author’s experiences, over 12 years, as a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

3. Since 1949 knowledge about discrimination has expanded greatly as practitioners and scholars have struggled to keep pace with political and social change. The number of United Nations member States has increased from 34 to 185 as a result of decolonization and the division of some states. The links between peoples have been strengthened by the processes of globalization. The United Nations has promoted a series of human rights treaties and most States have accepted the international monitoring of some of their activities in this field. Much more is now known about how laws can prevent discrimination and offer remedies for its victims. More use has been made of educational measures to counter racial prejudice.

4. In 1949 it was understood that the consciousness of belonging in a group develops when people encounter strangers. They are more conscious of differences when they are involved in competitive relations, and when they seek to defend their own groups' interests. But less was then written about political influences upon group relations. Political leaders can either amplify and exploit group sentiments to their own advantage, or try to persuade their followers that everyone’s long-term interests lie in negotiation and mutual accommodation. In situations of racial and ethnic competition, political leaders sometimes deny their responsibility by claiming that they are only fulfilling the wishes of their followers. Of course, everyone’s freedom of action is limited by constraints inherited from the past, but the present generation should not be permitted to blame history for their own deficiencies. It is therefore important to examine closely any statement about the causes of racial discrimination.

Cooperation between States

5. The main thrust of United Nations action has been to define racial discrimination as a violation either of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter or of one or more of the rights recognized in a series of human rights treaties, in particular the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) - which built upon the International Labour Organization’s Convention (No. 111) on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation).

6. Under the authority of the Charter, the General Assembly has declared three Decades for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. It may be presumed that when, in 1967, it used the word “racism” for the first time, it meant to extend the meaning of the words “racial discrimination”, but, if so, it did not explain the nature of the addition. The United Nations has defined “racial discrimination” but not “racism”. The General Assembly convened World Conferences to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in 1978 and 1983 (for summary accounts see the UN Yearbooks for these years). Among other actions, the Commission on Human Rights in 1993 appointed a special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia. The Revised Programme of Action for the Third Decade stated in paragraph 8 that “the biggest contribution to the elimination of racial discrimination will be that which results from the actions of States within their own territories”.

7. The preambular paragraphs of the International Convention mention only two causes of racial discrimination: colonialism, and doctrines of racial superiority. The Convention assumes that racial discrimination can be speedily eliminated if United Nations member States take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Nations. This belief in the omni-competence of governments was at its height in the mid-nineteen-sixties. The ICERD preamble presents racial discrimination as a social sickness, a pathology attacking what would otherwise be healthy societies. Article 26 of the ICCPR, to the contrary, presents racial discrimination as one among several forms of unlawful behaviour, which, like a crime, is something for which one or more individuals are responsible and should be called to account. In all regions of the world, native workers resent competition for employment from immigrant workers and expect to be protected against it. This disposition to discriminate is a universal and normal form of behaviour, not a pathological form.

8. Discrimination is not necessarily illegal. Anti-discrimination laws can properly permit more favourable treatment for members of disadvantaged groups. Nor is discrimination necessarily immoral. To reserve the position of priest to male persons is discriminatory on grounds of sex, but it may be justified on religious grounds. When a State legislates against discrimination it makes use of the concept of prohibited grounds (differential treatment is unlawful when someone acts on racial grounds) and the concept of protected class (anyone assigned to a racial group belongs in a protected class). There are many parallels between racial discrimination and sexual discrimination, and between racial harassment and sexual harassment. As a result, there are many advantages in providing similar measures of recourse for the victims of both kinds of abuse.

9. In the 34 years since the ICERD was adopted, the international community has strengthened its institutions for the protection of human rights, even if much remains to be done. The world has become a smaller place, thanks to the remarkable advances in communication. This in turn has helped create a global market for many types of labour, and has shown that there was an element of truth in the thesis that capitalism causes racism, because economic development heightens competitive relations and these in turn evoke group hostility. The same trends have led also to a growth in transnational economic enterprise to an extent which now constrains the powers of national governments.

10. Among all these changes, some of the most remarkable have been those in communication and their effects upon migration. Multi-ethnic societies now sometimes come about as a result of immigration, and the processes of assimilation are the weaker because migrants can keep in touch with their relatives in their community of origin to an extent that was never previously possible. Air travel is cheaper. Overland motor transport and coach travel is more extensive. Migrants communicate with family members by telephone, and by posting tapes and videos as well as letters. Immigrants who receive television transmissions by satellite from their home countries form outposts of their homeland cultures in isolation from the lives of the societies around them. The Internet is used for the transmission of messages to potential customers and for the spreading of propaganda of all kinds.

11. This is the setting in which some activists seek to promote an ideal of “multiculturalism”, though those who use this word do not all mean the same things by it. There is an important contrast between the idea of multiculturalism and the idea of integration. Some States in all regions of the world express anxiety about national unity and inadequate integration, whether or not they fear secessionist movements. The grounds for concern in immigrant-receiving societies have increased in the last 30 years because the improvements in communication enable some of their residents to maintain ties with communities in other States. This tendency is counter-balanced by the way the improvements in communication promote better understanding of conditions in other parts of the State and in other parts of the world.

12. The move towards a global market in labour can be illustrated by an example reported in 1997. A company called British Polythene until recently manufactured plastic shopping bags in the town of Telford near the border between England and Wales. They found that the world price of such a bag had dropped by 0.3 of one cent (US$) because of competition from China, where the price of labour is lower. So the company moved production to Xin Hui, up the Pearl River from Hong Kong. There are now 150 million people in south-east China alone who are working in manufacturing industry, and when they take over the work previously done in Europe or North America, the employment markets in those regions have to readjust. It is not a one-way movement. East Asian companies have invested heavily in parts of Europe where labour costs are lower. With the decline in the coal and steel industries, the countries which industrialized first have had to find new ways of creating employment. Increased competition from overseas and the difficulty meeting popular expectations for health and welfare services have led to programmes of privatization and to changes in the influence of trade unions. Feelings of insecurity have grown and appear to have strengthened tendencies to blame the immigrants for the new problems.

13. Independently of these trends in the most industrialized countries, the past 15 years have seen serious racial or ethnic conflicts of an overtly political character. They include those following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the ending of the Soviet Union, in Rwanda and Burundi, in Palestine, in South Africa, and more recently in the attacks upon ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Some groups have sought ethnic homogeneity in a particular territory, giving rise to the expression “ethnic cleansing”. CERD has gone on record as opposing the partition of any State along ethnic lines on the grounds that this “could encourage groups elsewhere who were unwilling to respect the territorial integrity of States. The Committee strongly supported the principle of multi-ethnic societies...” (A/48/18, paras. 468-469). Ethnic homogeneity cannot be engineered by redrawing frontiers.

14. Following the outbreak of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, individuals who had earlier lived in harmony with one another came to mistrust and sometimes hate their former neighbours. Extremist groups perpetrated atrocities in order to polarize relations. Stories of what members of one group had done inspired a desire for revenge; the enemy group was depersonalized, making it psychologically possible for others to commit further atrocities against them (much as happened in the Punjab when the partition of India and Pakistan was decided). People were brought to believe that they were safe only when they were together with others of the same ethnic origin as themselves. The escalation of conflict in such circumstances can be prevented only by armed intervention.

15. In some States racial discrimination poses so great a threat to the public peace that far-reaching counter-measures are required. In relatively homogeneous States like Iceland and the Republic of Korea the problems are less troublesome. Nevertheless, all States parties to the International Convention are obliged to introduce preventive measures if only to reduce the likelihood of discrimination when they receive visitors from elsewhere.

Economic, social and cultural rights

16. Because of globalization, the regulation of the labour market has become an acutely sensitive issue. Workers in high-wage economies expect their governments to restrict the outflow of capital that could be used to create jobs at home, and to curtail the inflow of immigrant workers. Resentment of competition from immigrant labour, especially from illegal immigrants, is reported from all regions of the world. It can pose difficulties for democratic political parties because they can win few votes by protecting the interests of immigrants but can lose very many if they appear to neglect the interests of native workers, especially those organized in trades unions. The attitude of organized labour towards immigration depends upon whether the new workers will compete with or complement native labour. If the immigrants take the unattractive jobs that the native workers do not want, and no unemployment results, there is less opposition, but tension increases when the newcomers start to compete for the more attractive jobs.

17. The conflict of interest is very evident in immigration policies. Governments can maintain that the best way to protect the rights and interests of their existing population, including immigrants, is to restrict further immigration. On the other hand it may be to the nation’s long-term economic benefit if workers from poor countries who are willing to work for lower wages have the opportunity to do so. A common response is to contend that the rich countries should invest so as to improve employment prospects in the poor countries and thereby reduce the motivation to migrate. The practicability of such a policy is called into question wherever population growth rates are high. The best single measure to reduce these rates is to educate more of the female population and to provide women with the possibility of careers alternative to motherhood; this again depends upon investment.

18. Immigrant workers tend to be hard-working and ambitious; many display an entrepreneurial spirit. They make a major contribution to economic growth in the countries of settlement, though whether this contribution can be measured depends upon the kinds of statistics that are compiled. The conflicts over the admission of immigrants to the country are repeated when they seek employment in better-paying jobs. To start with, even well educated workers often find that they have to take employment as manual workers and in some countries they are confined, by processes of occupational segregation, to the jobs the native workers do not want. The key issue is then that of racial barriers within the market for labour and the restriction of mobility between different sections of the market.

19. If capitalism can be a cause of racial discrimination (para. 9), it can also be its enemy. An employer’s interest is in selling products and services irrespective of the ethnic characteristics of employees and customers; it is in minimizing the wages bill in order to maximize the profit. Money is not black, brown, yellow or white. Perfectly competitive markets ought to eliminate racial discrimination, though in practice other factors sustain it. Moreover, in societies with a high level of consumption the population is extremely reluctant to go to war. People feel they have too much to lose.

20. A great deal of discrimination in the workplace is of a customary character, and is taken for granted. Only by conducting research into its incidence and publicizing the findings is it possible to generate support for the enactment of laws against discrimination. Governments may believe that they have enough problems already without commissioning research that will stir up new ones, so international bodies have a special function in seeing that the true facts are brought to light. The most notable initiative has been the ILO programme entitled “Combating discrimination against (im)migrant workers and ethnic minorities in the world of work”. This started in 1992 with the objective of promoting new experimental studies of employment discrimination in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, plus a review of on-going studies in the United States of America. Under its aegis research was conducted in the Netherlands which found that in one out of every three responses to advertisements of semi-skilled employment vacancies a Moroccan applicant received less favourable treatment than a Dutch applicant. When job-seekers had to apply by post even immigrants who had received a Dutch college education and spoke Dutch fluently were seriously disadvantaged. Findings of this kind illuminate the extent of the problem and the points at which remedies are needed. Yet only in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States of America could the ILO plans to ascertain the incidence of discrimination in access to employment be implemented as originally intended. The findings from all these countries resembled those from the Netherlands. In all countries the efficacy of the laws and the recourse measures were evaluated and used as a basis for recommendations. In some other countries useful studies of, or seminars on, anti-discrimination training were conducted so that, in sum, the programme was successful. A follow-up programme is now needed if all the original objectives are to be attained. The same method of inquiry could well be extended to other countries.

21. Three of the main causes of workplace discrimination, as discovered by research, are those of taste, risk and profit. An employer may hire workers of a particular kind simply because he (or she) prefers people of that kind; this is a matter of taste. Another employer may avoid engaging workers of a particular kind in the belief that the customers will not like them or the existing workforce will not cooperate with them. Another possibility arises when an employer believes that on average workers of a certain kind are less likely to have the attributes sought. This is called statistical discrimination because it is a question of probabilities, or assumed probabilities, rather than of prejudice against all members of a category simply because they are assigned to that category. It is appropriate to note here that experimental research in social psychology has established that even meaningless information suggesting that some individuals constitute a group can be sufficient to initiate processes of group inclusion and exclusion. Discrimination often occurs without anyone intending to discriminate. The International Convention therefore defines as discrimination any action or inaction which has either a discriminatory purpose or a discriminatory effect. This is parallelled by national laws which distinguish between direct and indirect discrimination, or between disparate treatment and unjustifiable disparate impact.

22. The search for profit can be a cause of discrimination in uncompetitive markets, as in a situation of monopoly (one seller, many buyers) or monopsony (one buyer, many sellers). For example, under apartheid, South African mining employers established a single recruiting agency which could engage workers at lower wage rates than they would have obtained had employers had to compete for their labour. Trade unions representing white workers established monopolies which got better rewards for their members.

23. If statistics show that one section of the workforce has lower earnings, this constitutes evidence of disadvantage. The differential may be caused by discrimination or by some other factor. For example, in any economy some industries are likely to be expanding and others contracting. Workers employed in a region where industry is contracting will be at a disadvantage and will have lower earnings as a result. Relative advantage varies both between regions and over time, for in almost all societies privilege and poverty are transmitted from one generation to the next to reinforce patterns of social class. Differences in peoples’ appearance (like skin colour) may come to be taken as signs of differences in other attributes (like education) and become the causes of further discrimination. A cycle of cause-and-effect is then established.

24. States parties to ICERD are required to protect the rights of all residents to free choice of employment, just and favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal work, and to just and favourable remuneration. Very few States parties effectively protect these rights in the private sector. Very few have introduced protection against discrimination in effect. Experience indicates that State obligations are fulfilled better by providing remedies in civil law rather than by imposing criminal sanctions. In civil proceedings a lower standard of proof is acceptable, the accused may be obliged to answer questions, the victim has easier access to a tribunal, and the parties may be able to settle the dispute privately without any admission of fault. In some industrialized countries special enforcement agencies assist those who have a grievance. CERD has advised the governments of many such countries that they should keep records of the numbers and character of complaints of discrimination and of the action taken when the complaints have been found justified (including the award of compensation). In most countries with low levels of industrialization the protection of the rights to work is only skeletal.

25. Since 1949 de jure discrimination has been abolished throughout the world, so that de facto segregation now presents the main challenge. In countries where racial discrimination was once legally enjoined, and in countries in which immigrants have entered at the bottom of the scale, the statistics show an association between socio-economic status and racial and origin which is transmitted from one generation to the next and can become self-perpetuating. Racial distinctions have then been incorporated in a system of social class distinctions. One of the main charges against colonial rule was that a small ruling elite segregated itself from the rest of the society. The elite then looked with sympathy on theories of racial superiority because these appeared to justify their position of privilege. Segregation poses wider problems than this. The partial separateness of the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia, together with their success in trade, generated resentment and made them a target for attack when conditions deteriorated. The separateness of Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine becomes itself a cause of ethnic discrimination and other human rights violations.

26. In its General Recommendation XIX of 1995 CERD noted that, while the reference to apartheid in article 3 of the International Convention may have been directed exclusively to South Africa, the article as adopted prohibits all forms of segregation in all countries. It went on to observe that while segregation may in some countries have been created by governmental policies “a condition of partial segregation may also arise as an unintended by-product of the actions of private persons. In many cities residential patterns are influenced by group differences in income, which are sometimes combined with differences of race, colour, descent and national or ethnic origin, so that inhabitants can be stigmatized and individuals suffer a form of discrimination in which racial grounds are mixed with other grounds. The Committee therefore affirms that a condition of racial segregation can also arise without any initiative or direct involvement by the public authorities. It invites States parties to monitor all trends which can give rise to racial segregation, to work for the eradication of any negative consequences that may ensue, and to describe any such action in their periodic reports”.

27. The underlying causes of racial discrimination in the housing markets resemble those described for employment, but in some respects the pattern is more complex. In the market for the purchase of housing there are sellers who do not wish to sell to members of certain other groups. Many sellers engage real estate agents to sell their properties and these agents may then attempt to “steer” would-be purchasers towards properties in particular localities because of prevailing patterns of residential segregation. Purchasers also have their own preferences as to the neighbourhoods in which they wish to live. These preferences may be racially discriminatory or be influenced by a desire to avoid the discrimination practised by other people. In the rental market likewise there are landlords who do not wish to rent apartments to persons of a particular group. The three factors of taste, risk and profit continue to operate but within a different structure. Private persons when selling houses or renting apartments are profit-oriented and might be expected to put financial gain before skin colour, yet often, instead of seeking maximum profit, they seem content to settle for a smaller gain by striking a bargain with someone of their own ethnic group. Sometimes a seller planning to sell to an outsider risks intimidation from those seeking to ensure that there is no change in the character of their neighbourhood. When a municipality rents apartments its routines and policies will be determined politically and have often been found to be racially discriminatory. In these ways a new form of apartheid may be created, as in many United States cities. Once such a pattern is established it becomes a cause of further segregation. By building an unfavourable image of the residents of a particular neighbourhood, it contributes to discrimination and strengthens racially exclusive preferences. It is more difficult to eradicate residential segregation by race when minority political leaders acquire an interest in its maintenance.

28. Residential segregation leads to segregation in the schools and reduces contact between children belonging to different ethnic groups. In many immigrant-receiving societies, especially in the towns, parents now have greater opportunity to select schools for their children. Competition for places in the schools with the best examination results is intense. Parents tend to shun schools with a high proportion of pupils from racial and ethnic minorities so that de facto segregation can appear in the school system. The Habitat Agenda adopted at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in 1996 in paragraph 27 highlighted the priority due to the avoidance of discrimination in settlement patterns but failed to underline the way that patterns of inequality, once established, can then be a major cause of the transmission of inequality from one generation to the next.

29. Remedies for residential segregation must relate to the ways in which housing markets operate. Individuals who personally experience discrimination must have access to recourse measures but frequently they need professional support, especially if they allege discrimination on the part of a public body like a municipality. There is a special function for enforcement agencies in connection with the regulation of the financial side of house purchase. In the United States of America an elaborate system for the supervision of mortgage lending has been designed to prevent any aggregate differentials in lending to persons of different racial background.

30. In very many countries questions of residential segregation linked with racial and ethnic difference receive far too little attention. As with discrimination in employment, experience shows that only by conducting research into the nature and consequences of this kind of discrimination is it possible to generate support for the introduction of legal and administrative remedies. Experimental research into what happens to would-be house purchasers or to those seeking to rent apartments could be modelled on the research sponsored by the International Labour Organization into discrimination in the workplace. The Programme of Action to be considered at the World Conference might recommend that either the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements or the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development undertake this responsibility.

31. If effective remedies are to be designed and their success monitored, records need to be kept to identify the points at which discrimination occurs and its incidence. Laws for the protection of privacy and the electronic storage of personal data should not hamper the State’s responsibility to act against racial discrimination. In immigrant-receiving societies these records should cover the provision of services, including health services (because minorities sometimes have distinctive health problems and receive less care). Social indicators of the relative integration of distinctive groups can be valuable. While ethnic record-keeping is necessary in some societies if their governments are to fulfil their obligations under ICERD, there are also instances in which such records have been abused. It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which it would be justifiable to include a classification of ethnic origin in a person’s identity document. Also, in many countries it is considered undesirable to collect such information in the national census.

32. In several European countries the Roma (or Gypsies) are acutely disadvantaged. Members of the ethnic majority deny Roma their rights and the Roma often react in ways that the majority see as justifying their exclusion. There is no simple cause and no simple remedy for such a pattern. Action has to be taken across the whole range of social institutions. If individual as well as group rights are to be protected, the action should allow for the possibility that some Roma may wish to change their lifestyles in ways that increase their participation in the life of the majority.

33. The conceptions of cultural rights in existing human rights treaties were drawn up with regard to the circumstances of multi-ethnic societies containing national minorities. They are not well adapted to multi-ethnic societies that have come about as a result of immigration. Nor do they deal sufficiently well with xenophobia and related intolerance. There is increased concern about the effects which the media of mass communication, especially television, can have in spreading images of certain lifestyles. Advertising, whether on screen, film or the printed page, presents images designed to evoke identification on the part of potential consumers and thereby manufacture ideals of what people should look like. They are full of significance for relations between persons of different ethnic, national or racial origin. This will be considered in a later section.

Civil and Political rights

34. Doctrines of racial superiority were highlighted in 1965 as a cause of discrimination because of the Nazi era, during which a powerful government actively promoted such doctrines and, in application of them, introduced measures for the extermination of Jews, Roma and those considered racially degenerate. The continuing spread of such doctrines remains a serious threat. It is the less alarming now that most governments have legislated against incitement to racial hatred but, in several countries, implementation of the legislation has been inadequate. The people most attracted to racist organizations are the social misfits and persons psychologically disposed towards political extremism. The doctrines are not the cause of their extremism. Research suggests that the psychological forces behind racial extremism and antisemitism are often similar, and that prejudice satisfies a psychological need for these individuals. Their frustrations generate an aggression which they displace onto a scapegoat. Conventional measures of education are unlikely to change the attitudes of such people. In a number of European countries extremist groups seek to recruit broader support by staging rock concerts which encourage young men and women to identify themselves in racial terms.

35. Biological science will continue to uncover evidence of inherited variability in the human species. This may sometimes be presented as evidence for “racial” differences, but the assessment of any such claims should be left to those with qualifications in the relevant fields of expertise. The statement that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) does not depend upon any proposition about genetic similarities and differences.

36. The Secretary-General’s memorandum on The Main Types and Causes of Discrimination in 1949 summarized what was then known about the way individual prejudices were translated into social patterns of discrimination. In the last 50 years much more has been learned about the interactive nature of the relationship between individual attitudes and collective behaviour. As was mentioned in paragraph 4 above, experience in all regions of the world has since shown that political elites sometimes advance their own interests by cultivating popular suspicions of, or hostility towards, other groups. These may be neighbouring nations, national minorities or immigrant groups. Mr. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, then Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights for the former Yugoslavia, assured CERD in 1995 (CERD/C/SR.1071) that the long-standing differences between peoples in that region had been artificially exacerbated for political rather than ethnic reasons. Valery Tishkov, sometime Minister of Nationalities in the Russian Government, has likewise demonstrated that much of the apparent rise in ethnic sentiment in the republics formerly belonging to the Soviet Union can be attributed to the manoeuvres of political elites. Political leaders in Rwanda, seeking to explain the conflict in their country, have insisted “Rivalry between the groups always comes from the elite”. President Buyoya of Burundi has been quoted as explaining “There's never been any ethnic conflict between the groups on the level of the village. It's the politicians who transfer their political conflicts onto the hillsides. If the leaders say nothing, the killings don't happen ...”. In 1998, it was reported that, in a Belgian town on the linguistic frontier outside Brussels, if the mayor started a council meeting in French, her words were immediately drowned by extremists from elsewhere who came in coaches to shout for the use of the Flemish language. In the former Yugoslavia, villagers of different ethnic origin could live together until political activists from elsewhere arrived to upset the balance. Only a strong central government can repress this sort of agitation.

37. When members of a native population come to perceive immigrant groups as competing with them for scarce resources, their resentment mounts and may be expressed in physical aggression. Several European countries report an increasing incidence of racial attacks, mainly attacks by young men of the ethnic majority upon individuals unable effectively to defend themselves. In some localities the incidence of racial harassment is high. Repressive action is necessary but is unlikely by itself to suffice. Experience speaks for a multi-agency approach in which local government, the police and the social service agencies cooperate systematically at the local level. If an attack is racially motivated then this may properly be seen as an aggravating factor when determining sentence. Governments or appeal courts may need to issue guidance on this point and, since police and prosecutors are often reluctant to acknowledge racial motivation, their decisions may need to be monitored centrally.

38. Integration has a political dimension which can be profoundly affected by issues of citizenship and nationality. Increased labour migration, and the flow of refugees and asylum-seekers, have combined in some countries to inspire reconsideration of laws governing the acquisition of citizenship and the possible acceptance of dual nationality.

Civil society

39. Important as state institutions are, some vital aspects of community life exist in partial independence of the governments of the day, and indeed constrain their powers. This notion is summed up in the concept of civil society. It draws attention to the intermediary bodies like associations, clubs, trade unions, political parties, pressure groups, religious institutions, the mass media, sporting and other leisure institutions, which fill the space between the family and the State, and which contribute to the dispersal of power in society. The concept of civil society is employed here to draw attention to these features of social life and to provide a perspective on the responsibilities of States. This is the more relevant because, in the conflicts referred to in paragraph 13 above, it was civil society which paid the price for the failures of the political sector.

40. Effective action against racial discrimination requires the mobilizing of civil society. This must have regard to public opinion but can also seek to influence it. Some research has found that the more years persons have spent in education, the more likely they are to express tolerant attitudes towards members of other groups, but this is not necessarily a result of the lessons they have received. It may be due to the norms prevailing in different social milieux. Research also suggests that when members of different groups encounter one another in relations of equal status this reduces tendencies towards discrimination. This is very relevant to the question of residential segregation discussed in paragraphs 25-29 above.

41. The way an individual behaves towards members of other groups depends both on his or her own attitudes and upon his or her beliefs about the attitudes of others. For example, three out of four whites in a Detroit sample questioned in 1969-71 said they had no objection to a daughter bringing a black school friend home to play, but only one in three believed that most other whites would agree with them. This is an example of what is called pluralistic ignorance. Perhaps because they wish to avoid risks, many have an exaggerated fear that their neighbours may be less tolerant than they are themselves. Advertising and other publicity campaigns may help disabuse them of this fear and reinforce beliefs that differences in appearance are no measure of the moral worth of individuals, but they need careful planning. Strategies which seek to develop feelings of guilt among the majority can be counter-productive.

42. Members of the ethnic majority are inclined to minimize the significance of complaints of insult or discrimination from minority members; they often think that complainants are unduly sensitive. Yet with the greater public commitment to the ideal of social equality, small slights become the more resented and have a powerful effect upon the feelings of many victims. The mass media have an important role in improving the understanding of the pain that can be caused by even minor instances of discrimination.

43. Action against racial discrimination may be more effective if it is a branch of a strategy for the promotion of equal treatment generally, in line with article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as recalled in paragraph 1 above. Persons in all the 11 categories mentioned have an interest in equality of treatment, not just the members of minorities. Since so much discrimination springs not from the conscious acceptance of ideas of racial superiority but from the unconscious acceptance of customary ways of behaving, the most important educational measures will not be those implemented in schools but those which improve the training of members of occupational groups. Schemes for reducing workplace discrimination reviewed by the ILO were mentioned in paragraph 20 above. Measures to avoid inequality of treatment should be included in the training of judges, prosecutors, police, court and prison staff, social service and health personnel, the armed services and many other occupations. The effectiveness of training needs to be monitored.

44. Among the major international events of the present era are the Olympic Games and the many sporting championships, notably in football. It is said that those who compete in the Olympics feel a sense of fellowship with other competitors, but the various events are often reported in a such a nationalistic fashion that some commentators question whether, overall, they do not have a negative effect on international (as opposed to inter-state) relations. Sporting activities are usually considered to belong in the private sector and to be outside the sphere of State regulation. Sometimes members of racial minorities succeed on the sports field where their individual talents can be appreciated by everyone, and the success of the French team in the 1998 World Football Cup was a boost for the republican philosophy of integration. But minority footballers can also be scapegoats for the failure of teams and much racial abuse is directed at them at games in Europe. In various sports, players of immigrant background often have difficulty getting team places, especially at the local level, and teams of minority composition do not find it easy to secure fixtures to play teams composed of members of the racial majority. Governments could use their influence in this connection.

45. As part of a programme of action, governments might be requested to encourage journalists to develop codes of practice concerning the representation in the mass media of the cultures of other peoples, both within and outside their own countries, and to avoid any reporting which contributes to intolerance. Some qualified observers insist that only when there are journalists with minority as well as majority ethnic backgrounds, and employment in the mass media reflects the ethnic composition of the society as a whole, will a satisfactory balance be struck in reporting. Codes for regulating advertising could also recommend that advertisements reflect the cultural diversity of the country.

46. The separate functions of central and local government in combatting discrimination, ensuring effective remedies for it, and in improving educational measures, should be identified. Local community-relations councils or similar bodies may be better able to deal with local problems but may need financial assistance from central government.

47. Indigenous peoples require separate consideration in any programme for the reduction of racial discrimination, but the problems vary so much from one region and one country to another that generalization is inadvisable. States should note that some members of indigenous groups may wish to participate in the life of the national civil society and should ensure that they are able to do so without discrimination.

48. Finally, some mention should be made of the most sensitive of all related issues, that of faith and religious institutions. Humans can commit atrocities on members of other ethnic groups only because they do not see these persons as belonging in the same moral community as themselves. Religious leaders sometimes appear not to respect the moral and legal rights of those whom they perceive as non-believers. The ideal of tolerance requires that non-believers be seen as people with valid beliefs of their own and not just as potential converts.

The responsibilities of governments

49. Action against racial discrimination has been a United Nations priority for many years. All the most important remedies have been identified already, but as many of them are expensive, either financially or in political terms, their implementation remains rudimentary. State support for the proper implementation of the International Convention is often lacking. During the years 1986-90 and 1990 CERD was able to hold only half the number of its scheduled meetings because some States were not paying their assessments. Appeals from the General Assembly had no effect, yet the States parties never suspended the voting rights of the States which were undermining the monitoring process. Nor have States acted on General Assembly resolution 49/178 which, in paragraphs 3 and 6, urges them to use their meetings to improve the reporting process. More recently, resolution 52/118 of 12 December 1997 in paragraph 23 recalled “the importance of giving consideration to equitable geographical distribution of membership and to the representation of the principal legal systems, and of bearing in mind that the members shall be elected and serve in their personal capacity and shall be of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights”. Yet when States elected members of CERD in January 1998 they failed to give adequate consideration to equitable geographical distribution as ICERD 8.1 requires.

50. No consideration of State action against racial discrimination should overlook the important functions that can be served by regional institutions for the protection of human rights. Neighbouring States often have to contend with similar forms of discrimination and action can often be helpfully coordinated at the regional level.

51. In no way does this diminish the importance of provisions whereby an individual who believes that he or she has not received promised protections may be enabled to address a complaint to a United Nations treaty monitoring body. More States might make declarations under article 14 of ICERD to permit individual communications and, those which have already done so, might ensure better publicity for the availability of the remedy. It is noteworthy that the United Nations has received no communications from residents in certain States where protections are manifestly insufficient.

52. As was recalled in paragraph 6 above, the biggest contribution to the elimination of racial discrimination will be that which results from the actions of States within their own territories. That action cannot be promoted by attempting to lay further legal obligations upon States. The current need is for voluntary action going beyond the letter of the International Convention but within its spirit. The further reduction of racial discrimination requires the involvement of many of the institutions of civil society in ways that might be outlined in the Declaration adopted by the World Conference. States might be invited to describe any such action in their periodic reports under the International Convention as, indeed, many have already done in recent years.


* This background paper expresses the individual views of the author, and has not been approved by and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee.


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Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
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