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Key-Note Speech by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson
Robinson, Mary

Key-Note Speech by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Prime Minister,
Distinguished Guests,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to have been invited to address this forum and I pay tribute to the Government of Sweden for making it happen. It comes as no surprise to me that Sweden should lead the way in the fight against intolerance, given this country’s remarkable record in giving the lead internationally on human rights and humanitarian causes.

The theme of this forum is especially appropriate after last year’s Stockholm Conference on the Holocaust and the programme is impressive both as regards substance and in its forward-looking approach.

I am glad your approach will be practical, and that you will look for positive initiatives from each of the working groups.

As the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, will emphasise when he addresses you, combating intolerance is central to the aims of the United Nations and engages all branches of the organisation. The Preamble to the UN Charter states one of its top priorities as being “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women… and for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.”

Humankind has made many advances over the centuries. The age we live in is one of revolutionary discoveries in the fields of science, medicine and technology which are improving our quality of life in ways that even the previous generation could not have imagined. But, as we enjoy the improvements which human ingenuity has produced, we cannot but see that all manner of human rights violations remain commonplace in our supposedly advanced world. We are conscious, too, that the capacity to bring our race to the brink of disaster is not merely a theoretical possibility but something which actually happened, less than sixty years ago. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, in the speech he delivered here in Stockholm in 1995 on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, put it well: “Our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note…The very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears…”

Intolerance is a destructive force which has the capacity to ruin lives and threaten all of the advances the human race has made. I recall the words of Elie Wiesel at the ceremony of dedication for the Auschwitz memorial:

“I speak as a Jew who has seen what humanity has done to itself by trying to exterminate an entire people and inflict suffering and humiliation and death on so many others. In this place of darkness and malediction we can but stand in awe and remember its stateless, faceless and nameless victims.”

In fact, our first duty in the face of intolerance, and particularly in the face of its most extreme manifestations - genocide and crimes against humanity - is to remember and bear witness. I applaud the initiative whereby a publication on the Holocaust was sent to households in Sweden. It is a painful book to read but it is vital that young people who were not yet born when these terrible deeds took place should understand where intolerance ultimately leads. It is especially important to dwell on this at a time when synagogues in Europe are once again the target of racist attacks.

But we must do more than remember: we have a solemn duty to do everything in our power to combat intolerance in all its manifestations.

An excellent opportunity to do this is presented by the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance which will be held in Durban, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September of this year.

The first task of the World Conference must be to reach a thorough understanding of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance as they exist in this twenty-first century. An extensive range of preparatory conferences and regional expert seminars has been under way since last year and will continue up to the Conference proper. The meetings are considering many different issues and their geographic spread is wide, ranging from Dakar to Teheran, from Santiago to Bangkok.

I hope that the preparatory meetings will enlighten us further about the nature of racism and xenophobia. I look to this Forum today to shed more light on the phenomenon of intolerance which is a key factor in racism. Intolerance, prejudice and racism are deep rooted, complex forces. They take many forms: they can be based on difference of religion, nationality, social class, gender. One thing is certain: discrimination on the grounds of racial difference is particularly strong. As a recent study concluded: “Blatant and covert discrimination on the grounds of race are deeply entrenched.”

All modern manifestations of intolerance and racism must be confronted. Previous UN Conferences have addressed the particular problems of indigenous peoples, national minorities and migrants. These remain issues of serious concern. Other topics we will need to address at Durban include the plight of the Roma community – and indeed the traveller community in my own country, Ireland - ethnic conflict, gender and racism and prejudice against refugees and asylum seekers.

We will need, as well, to examine the impact of globalisation on racism and intolerance. As in so many other aspects of our lives, globalisation has implications in this area also. One example is that cross-border crimes such as trafficking in persons are on the increase.

Another is that population movements often lead to a rise in xenophobia. In this regard, I was struck by a recent statement by the NGO Working Group on Migration and Xenophobia which highlighted the complex forces which are at work: “In the experience of many NGOs, xenophobia and hostility against non-nationals both overlap with and are distinct from racism and racial discrimination. In some cases, discrimination is manifested on the sole basis of foreignness, even when racial and other characteristics make non-nationals indistinguishable from nationals. In other situations, the intersection of racism and xenophobia is manifested by the presumption that anyone whose physical characteristics are distinct from the idealised national norm is assumed to be foreign.”
A further topic which needs to be addressed is the use of the internet to spread messages of hate and prejudice. A technical advance which has a great capacity to enlighten and entertain becomes, in the hands of some, a weapon of racism. We must be alert to the corrupting effect of such messages and seek ways for the high tech companies – and the media - to become more involved in fighting racism.

What can we hope for from the World Conference? I am looking for concrete results in Durban. My objective is to get the agreement of the international community on a ringing declaration against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, a substantive plan of action with specific activities and timelines, and a process to review actions at the end of a set period. I look to Sweden, and to every UN member state, to play a constructive role in ensuring that the Durban Conference succeeds in devising new, effective strategies to combat all forms of racism and intolerance.

When tackling such a difficult challenge, it is generally agreed that actions are required at international, regional and national level. The World Conference will set out the norms and standards which all countries should adhere to and map the way forward. In Europe, Sweden can play a powerful role over the coming months through its presidency of the European Union. More can and should be done in Europe to combat racism. At the European Conference against Racism in Strasbourg last October I said that we should not be blind to the scale of racism and xenophobia in Europe today. I referred to such aspects as:

• The overall increase in intolerance towards foreigners, asylum seekers and minorities.
• Discrimination against minority groups by law enforcement, immigration and other officials.
• Discrimination in the workplace and the service sector.
• The rise in support for far-right parties.
• The emergence of racist attitudes in places where it had not been so evident before and in wealthy societies where there is no threat to livelihoods.

European attitudes strike me as paradoxical. Even leaving aside the equity issue, and countries’ obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers under international law, the economic arguments in favour of a more liberal approach are striking. Europe’s birthrate has fallen sharply and the age profile is steadily rising. For the purpose of its economic vitality alone, Europe needs more people.

Regrettably, many political leaders in Europe have turned their backs on this reality and have been, at best, lukewarm, at worst, hostile in their attitude towards refugees and asylum seekers. I said in Strasbourg and I repeat here, that leadership is needed on this issue from Europe’s politicians. The message I send to them is this: a multicultural Europe is inevitable. Europe has no alternative but to embrace tolerance and diversity. I would even go further and say that tolerance is not enough – the goal should be to achieve full respect for the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of “the other” in our societies – of minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, those of different colour, race or ethnic background.

Perhaps the greatest effort which will have to be made is at the national level. Here, too, Sweden can lead the way. I have been impressed with the approach of the Sweden 2000 Institute in identifying driving forces for diversity in Sweden. The Institute has examined the aging population and workforce. It has noted that the workforce will become more multicultural, posing a challenge to Swedish companies to view diversity management as a strategic issue that needs to be integrated in all parts of the processes and practices within a company.

My call to each of the countries represented at this Conference is to focus over the coming months leading to the Durban Conference on a positive approach to diversity at each country´s level. There needs to be more transparency; more honesty; more valuing of the contribution of those who will come from outside the country to contribute to the essential purposes of each country in achieving its full economic and social potential over the coming years.

Another example is the office of ombudsman. The international community admires the way Sweden developed this office. The notion of an independent arbitrator who stands up for the rights of the individual against the State has had enormous influence in strengthening human rights and has spread to many parts of the world in a relatively short time.

Today Sweden has a highly developed structure of national institutions including a parliamentary ombudsman and ombudsmen responsible for ethnic discrimination, equal opportunities, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the disabled and children.

Experience has shown that, even where sophisticated legislation and machinery exist to protect rights, the scope for discrimination and intolerance remains great. Neither Sweden nor any country can claim to be free from racism and discrimination. The World Conference against Racism is therefore an ideal occasion for each country to examine the record so far, including the effectiveness of existing legislation and arrangements to combat racism and to ask whether these are adequate to cope with new trends.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Visionary Declaration prepared for the World Conference and signed by more than 70 Heads of State and Government across the world calls for a recognition that we all constitute one human family. The Declaration says: “this truth encourages us towards the full exercise of our human spirit, the reawakening of all its inventive, creative and moral capacities, enhanced by the equal participation of men and women.

Instead of allowing diversity of race and culture to become a limiting factor in human exchange and development, we must refocus our understanding, discern in such diversity the potential for mutual enrichment, and realise that it is the interchange between great traditions of human spirituality which offers the best prospect for the persistence of the human spirit itself.”

Thank you.

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