March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The annual observance is recognised annually on the day that police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa. In a commemorative statement, Professor of Social History and Director of the Centre for Reparation Research at The University of the West Indies, Professor Verene A. Shepherd acknowledged, “The global community has also made strides in terms of the elimination of racism and racial discrimination… But we cannot rest on our laurels.”
Professor Shepherd serves as Vice-Chair for the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its State parties. She delivered the statement on Friday, March 18 during a Commemorative Plenary Meeting held by UN General Assembly to mark the international observance. The complete transcript of her remarks follows:
Your Excellency, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Your Excellency Abdulla Shahid, President of the General Assembly,
Colleagues and Friends,
It is a privilege for me to address you today on behalf of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to commemorate this important International Day, proclaimed by this United Nations General Assembly in 1966–six years after the tragedy in South Africa that inspired its proclamation, and marked annually on March 21. In this regard, I invite you now to join me in paying tribute to some of the victims of that massacre, among them, Wiggi Bakela, James Beshe, Ephraim Chaka, Gilbert Demo, Eliot Kabe, Miriam Lekitla, and Paulina Mafulatse. May their souls rest in power.
We are assembled here today because we share a common concern for the creation of a world in which racism, racial discrimination, afrophobia, xenophobia, and related intolerance play no part, either in our personal lives or in our international relations. Like me and the Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, you believe in the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the group of international instruments adopted after World War II, as a response to the atrocities of the War, to protect the human rights and inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of the human family even though we lament that too many have not learned the lessons of the past in terms of the tragic impact of wars. Within this context, racial discrimination is to be treated as abhorrent. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (the ICERD) is very explicit about what constitutes racial discrimination. It is,
… any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.
As we reflect on 21 March 1960 when police opened fire and killed those 69 men, women and children at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa against the apartheid pass laws, let us celebrate the fact that since that tragic day, the apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled and South Africa has made great efforts to ensure that never again will such an evil system as racial apartheid ever raise its ugly head in their country.
The global community has also made strides in terms of the elimination of racism and racial discrimination. Colonialism has ended in many more countries since 1960 and the superstructure of slavery and racial apartheid has been dismantled. Racist laws and practices have been abolished in many countries, and the United Nations has built an international framework for fighting racism, guided by the ICERD as well as by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other rights-based instruments. In recent years, we have launched the SDGs, crafted and some have actioned the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and the General Assembly has recently established The Permanent Forum for People of African Descent, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights has unveiled a major report calling on Member States to adopt a “transformative agenda” to uproot systemic racism. CERD has also adopted a general Recommendation – #36 – on Preventing and Combating Racial Profiling by Law Enforcement Officials (2020).
But we cannot rest on our laurels. The events of the years 2019-2021 and the first 2 and a half months of 2022, are timely reminders to all of us that intolerance for diversity, racism and racial discrimination are not only ideologies and practices of the past. We have seen their manifestations in: the tragic murder of African American George Floyd, the globalization of the Black Lives Matter movement, the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Indigenous Peoples and People of African descent, the inequitable distribution of vaccines, the intensification of the reparatory justice movement and the insistence that history must guide our actions towards building more equitable societies in the face of a seeming resurgence of pro-colonialism. Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has upturned healthcare and education systems, crippled economies, blunted commerce, killed over a million people, and forced us all to restructure our daily rhythms and routines. We have also all seen the impact of climate change and environmental degradation and more recently, the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on immigrants and minorities, including people of African descent.
Let us commit ourselves anew today to the fight against racial discrimination and build bridges of understanding – and extend such bridges – across the human family. As High Commissioner Bachelet said in a press release about her Report, “The status quo is untenable.” “Systemic racism needs a systemic response. We need a transformative approach that tackles the interconnected areas that drive racism, and lead to repeated, wholly avoidable, tragedies like the death of George Floyd.”
I thank you.