Is it time for concerted action to address racial and ethnic discrimination?


Is it time for concerted action to address racial and ethnic discrimination?

By Ambassador Yvette Stevens, Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva

Despite some advances as a result of decades of struggle, racism and racial/ethnic discrimination, both overt and covert, continue to be sources of global inequalities, instability and conflicts. Such discrimination disadvantages and marginalises people in all regions of the world. Among other things, it manifests itself in disproportionate poverty rates and limited access to power, justice and education; physical and mental ill health; lack of social security; lack of access to basic needs and political participation; and vulnerability to racial/ethnic profiling and police violence.

Racial and ethnic discrimination constitute a gross violation of human rights. The United Nations (UN) Charter reaffirms faith in fundamental human rights, and in the dignity and worth of the human person. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights ... without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (arts. 1-2).

In addition, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965, which obliges States to take steps to prohibit racial discrimination and promote understanding among all races. It came into force in 1969, and currently boasts 182 States Parties.

Furthermore, both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966, which came into force in 1976, start with the statement that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (Preamble). The ICCPR has 173 States Parties and the ICESCR has 171.

World conferences against racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia were held in 1978, 1983, 2001 and 2009.  The negotiations at the 2001 Third World Conference against Racism resulted in some controversies, which resulted in a number of countries pulling out of the conference. However, the final outcome document, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, struck a delicate balance among the requirements of all parties and provided a blueprint for action against racial and ethnic discrimination. 

Other UN mechanisms that have been put in place over the years, include:

A particular mention should be made of one group to which the UN has given a great deal of attention, i.e. people of African descent. In 2015 the General Assembly declared the period 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent and encouraged all UN Member States, to draw up plans for concrete and practical steps to combat racism, racial discrimination and other forms of multiple or aggravated discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance faced by people of African descent in the areas of social and political recognition, justice and development. Such plans should include the adoption and effective implementation of national and international legal frameworks, policies and programmes dealing with the issue of discrimination. However, half way through the decade only a few countries have adopted such plans, while for the most part those that have adopted the plans do not include some major countries in which vast inequalities are believed to exist.

This “arsenal” of weapons to address racial and ethnic discrimination have striven to make a difference, but a review of the situation in many states regarding the implementation of the recommendations in their various reports and communications indicates that much still needs to be done.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that the UN adopted in 2015 promise that “no one will be left behind” (Preamble), but millions of people suffering from the impacts of racism and racial and ethnic discrimination are already being left behind and will remain so, or will fall further behind, unless comprehensive steps are taken to address the inequalities among races and ethnic groups around the world.

Recent global events have laid bare the state of racial and ethnic discrimination in the world.  Statistics on the incidence of and deaths from COVID-19 have shown that certain groups are more affected by the pandemic than others in many countries, including highly developed ones. This comes as no surprise to human rights entities and advocates that have long highlighted the plight of particular racial and ethnic groups within these countries. 

In addition, although statistics have suggested the prevalence of racial and ethnic profiling, it is the widespread development and availability of technology capable of documenting evidence of racism and racial and ethnic profiling that have made us realise the severity of the problems that we have hitherto only heard about. 

In light of recent global events and the importance of achieving the SDGs, is it now time for the UN to critically examine progress in implementing the SDGs and to put pressure on states to meet their commitments and implement the plethora of recommendations that have been made to them to address racial and ethnic discrimination? The UN Human Rights Council needs to pay greater attention to the implementation of these recommendations. In cases in which there are consistent patterns of abuses on the basis of racial and ethnic origin, and states fail to take appropriate action to rectify this, they should be brought before the Council under its agenda item of “Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention” to determine further action to be taken.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Ambassador Stevens has had a broad and long experience in the United Nations System. An Engineer by training, Ambassador Stevens studied at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute and at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London. She taught Engineering at the University of Sierra Leone for six years, before joining the United Nations in 1980, as a Village Technology Expert in ILO. At UNHCR, she served as Evaluation Officer as well as Chief of the Technical Support Section of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, both of which involved thorough analyses of refugee situations in about 30 countries, all over the world. She also served UNHCR in Africa, first as Deputy Liaison Representative in Ethiopia (1995 to 1997) and as the UNHCR Representative to Kenya and Somalia (1997 to 1999). In the latter capacity, she acted as the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia on a number of occasions. From 1999 to 2004, she worked as Director in DESA, the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa. Before retirement, she was the United Nations Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator and Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva from 2004 to 2006. After retirement from the UN, between 2006 and 2009, Ambassador Stevens worked as a freelance consultant on humanitarian issues as well as on disaster risk reduction in Africa. She worked as an Energy Policy Adviser to the Government of Sierra Leone from 2009 to 2012, before being appointed as Permanent Representative in Geneva. As Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone, Ambassador Stevens was active, inter alia, on human rights issues, (including Child Early and Forced Marriage, Persons Living with Albinism and Women’s Rights); trade (Women and Trade, Trade Assistance to Least Developing Countries); disarmament (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems). She was a Geneva Gender Champion.