Deputy Secretary-General’s remarks at event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, entitled “Promoting Tolerance on the Internet: Changing Attitudes and Patterns of Behaviour”

New York, 2 December 2015

Ambassador Winid, Ambassadors Pobee, Pedersen, Perera and Antonio, Dear Colleagues and Friends, Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

In a year of many anniversaries, 2015, this is one of the most important.

Today we mark a half-century of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

This Convention, as you may know, was the very first United Nations human rights treaty.

It was a landmark moment in a fight that we are still engaged in to this day: to ensure equality and a life of dignity for all. No human being is to experience discrimination because of race. The preamble of the UN Charter stipulates “We the peoples of the United Nations are determined […] to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women”. These words shall always guide us in our work.

I thank the organizers among member states who have brought us together to mark this important anniversary. I also thank my colleagues in UNESCO, DPI and OHCHR for their presence and their contributions.

I pay tribute to the expert members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Committee keeps States accountable and I am glad to see also engages actively with civil society in the fight against racism.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
Thanks to 50 years of this Convention, we have, in most countries, laws and policies banning racial discrimination. We recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities. We acknowledge that people should react and complain when they suffer discrimination. This is essential for accountability and for the fight against injustice.

At the same time, we do indeed have to face up to the failures. The genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans Wars of the 90s were deadly reminders of the grave dangers of discrimination and of dividing societies in polarizing “us and them” categories, something we are reminded of every day in today’s world.

In our world, countries, which even have laws and policies against discrimination, still suffer crimes based on race – including, as we have seen, wrongful executions and police brutality.

There is reason to be especially worried about racial discrimination intersecting with religious discrimination – and compounding the negative effects of both.

The Convention is our timeless compass as we navigate between new threats. It sets out a common standard to assess what is acceptable and what is not in free, democratic societies.

We see how important this is in the aftermath of horrible acts of terror which we have seen too many of in recent weeks and months.

The Convention and other human rights treaties set out the principles that must help us to avoid falling in the trap of provocation of the terrorists and to preserve the values we cherish.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
I welcome today’s focus on the Internet as another lens for us to see how to apply the Convention’s principles.

Our lives, as you all know, are increasingly lived online. And so we must ensure that our values are alive online as well.

We see inspiring online messages about respect for diversity, tolerance and non-discrimination. But the Internet also exposes the chilling ignorance and hatred of people who spread racism and dehumanization. I am especially disturbed to think of children and youth being subjected to this toxic material. What we need in today’s world is a positive message to give hope for the future to many frustrated people around the world.

Free speech is potentially one of the best tools to counter discrimination. Racist hate speech, on the other hand, threatens to silence the free speech of its victims.

The Convention requires the punishment of the dissemination of ideas based on racial hatred, or incitement to discrimination and violence against anyone because of their race.

Building on the Convention, countries have adopted a tool for dealing with these issues: the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred.

The Convention as well as the Rabat Plan of Action and practical action can contribute to a new global compact of mutual understanding and respect for diversity. The principles of inclusion, participation, equality and non-discrimination must be held high, both nationally and internationally.

This is urgent today, with conflicts, repression and poverty forcing record numbers of people to flee their homes, as we see today.

I am deeply concerned about racism and xenophobia against people who arrive in Europe and other countries seeking to escape death and build a better life.

The United Nations is urging activists, not least young people, to use the Internet in our fight against racism.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is forging social media partnerships with local media outlets from around the world.

And UNESCO this year published an important study ‘Countering online hate speech’.

The United Nations Department of Public Information has launched a new campaign against intolerance, extremism, racism and xenophobia. This builds on its 2012 Let’s Fight Racism social media campaign in which individuals around the world raised their voices.

One wrote in this publication, “I’ve always told my children that we are all the same inside, just wrapped in different wrapping paper!”. Declaring that all people are equal, these voices are part of a global chorus against the ugly tide of online racism.

Fifty years ago, when this Convention was adopted, no one could have imagined the Internet.

A half-century on, let us use this new and powerful tool to advance the fight to end racism and racial discrimination in our world in the spirit of the UN Charter and with the intent of a life of dignity for all.

Thank you.