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Leitner Center Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Gay McDougall, Gives Keynote Address at UN’s Commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

New York, NY (March 27, 2014) – Leitner Center Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence Gay McDougall gave the keynote address on the state of racial discrimination worldwide at the UN General Assembly commemoration of The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Friday, March 21, 2014.

As the former United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues, she laid out in her remarks how far the world has come in terms of eliminating racial discrimination since the fall of apartheid, and how much Gay McDougall Speaking at UNwork there is still to be done. She urged the international community to recognize racial discrimination as a structural issue that is often a key determinant for poverty. Ms. McDougall also called for comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, strong enforcement institutions, inclusive procedures for justice and redress, and meaningful policy initiatives that are transparent, supported by data, and created through dialogue with disadvantaged groups. Her full remarks can be found below.

Ms. McDougall is also the former director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and she served as a member the South African Election Commission, which oversaw the country’s first democratic, non-racial elections in 1994.

Full Text of Gay McDougall’s Remarks:

March 21st: From Solemn Commemoration to Pledges and Action

Thank you Mr. President.

As the High Commissioner’s statement expressed so eloquently, on this day in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid pass laws in Sharpeville, South Africa. This day originally commemorated the lives lost in the fight for democracy and equal human rights in South Africa during the apartheid regime. Since the defeat of apartheid, this day has been an occasion to remind the international community of its solemn duty to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

Over the decades since the Sharpeville massacre, 176 countries have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, with 87 signatories. Its treaty monitoring body, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has counseled and prodded countries, one by one, to implement their obligations under the treaty and to make the promise of the Convention real in the lives of all people. I was privileged to serve on that Committee for four years.

In 2001, the Third World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia held in Durban made a critical contribution.  There, governments acknowledged that racial discrimination existed in every country, in every region; and that the fight against racism is an international priority for all nations. The Gay McDougall Speaking at UNpast abuses of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the system of colonialism were addressed in what became an historic discourse.  Equally important, the Conference developed a picture of what racial discrimination looks like in the twenty-first century.

The problem of racial discrimination was defined as not solely one of “bias” in the sense of personal prejudice, but rather as one of social and economic exclusion, placing the emphasis more fundamentally on economic and social rights.  Racial discrimination was placed squarely in the context of globalization and the economic disparities that exist along racial lines both within and between countries.  Economic exclusion was seen as a cause and a consequence of entrenched discrimination against certain racial and ethnic minorities in both developed and developing countries.

For many civil society and affected groups, Durban was a hugely empowering experience. New networks were born and new momentum was created, which was then taken back to communities. Connections were made between the situation of African Descendants in the Diaspora, Roma, Dalits, migrants and Indigenous Peoples.

Out of these exchanges and the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have come a number of key understandings and necessary approaches.

We understand that global challenges, such as the worldwide financial crisis, global food shortages and climate change have exacerbated problems faced by racialised communities. Austerity policies and budget cuts hit those at the bottom of the economic strata with greater impact. People in poverty lack reserves to ride out tough times or natural disasters.  Also, times of economic crisis increase social pressures to blame those who have the least power.  These tendencies can lead to hate speech and violence against disadvantaged communities and can also threaten democracies by giving rise to racist policies or even racist political parties.

Discrimination is now more broadly recognized as a key determinant for poverty.  Marginalised racial Gay McDougall Speaking at UNgroups are disproportionately concentrated in low-skilled, low-wage, informal sectors such as domestic work, agricultural labor and street vending—sectors that are generally unprotected by labor laws and social security.  

And now we all see more clearly the complex burdens borne by women; burdens of poverty, ethnic prejudice and gender-based restrictions, all over-lapping in ways that form profound obstacles.

In addition to the disempowering personal impact that racial prejudice has on its victims, it is critically important to understand its structural nature.  In societies where racial prejudice has been endemic over many eras, it becomes self-perpetuating in the institutions that determine social advancement and economic survival.

This key understanding about the structural nature of racial inequality must be central to fashioning remedies.  Of course, it is essential to have comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and strong enforcement institutions with procedures that can be initiated by victims themselves or their representatives.

Additionally, there should be a comprehensive approach that recognizes the importance of tackling legal regimes, policies and practices that have a negative disparate impact on communities disadvantaged by racial discrimination, regardless of intent.

Governments should undertake robust special measures to address disparities in the participation of racial groups in economic life.  Aggressive programs should be developed, especially in the fields of employment, education and training, financial services, land tenure, and property rights. Labor protections and social security policies should be extended to the low wage and informal sector workers.

Affirmative action measures should be undertaken within a broader comprehensive equality strategy that should cover a spectrum of legislative initiatives with targeted budgetary supports, including benchmarks and quotas. Decisions on policy choices should be made in meaningful consultation with disadvantaged groups, should be transparent and supported by disaggregated data that reveals the existing inequalities.

Now more than ever, the banners in demonstrations for racial justice in countries around the world call for “the right to work,” “the right to housing,” “an equal right to quality education” and “the right to a living wage.” This is the case in countries with economies still developing, as well as in countries with highly developed economies.

Finally, it is encouraging that there is a growing consensus within global development institutions about the importance of addressing the current extremes in both income inequality and poverty levels. One experience that gives rise to this lesson is that efforts in some countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals have failed to change the realities of many groups who are victims of endemic discrimination.

As the international community looks forward to the future, it is a hopeful sign for the racial justice and minority rights movement that one of the core principles for the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Agenda is to “leave no one behind.”  But we must all work hard to make these words into realities.

Thank you Mr. President.

Text courtesy of Gay McDougall. Photo credits: UN Photo/Bill Bly


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