Racism and Human Rights

Statement by Human Rights Watch to the First Preparatory Committee for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
Four Areas for International Action

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Racism, Nationality, Statelessness, and the Rights of Citizenship

Racism, Criminal Justice, and Public Administration

Migration and Refugee Flows

Race and Caste

Racism is an instrument in the generation of conflict, the fomenting of exclusivist nationalism, and a motor for the disintegration of states and slaughter among neighbors. Governments, political movements, and violent armed groups continue to use racial discrimination as a tool for the political mobilization of supporters, and a framework for the exclusion, exploitation, oppression, and even extermination of others. Whole populations may be denied the full prerogatives of nationality in their own countries--or stripped of their citizenship by political fiat--because of their race or descent. Racism can also intersect with gender discrimination, to diminish or negate women's exercise of their human rights.

As economic globalization, regional economic crises, and political upheaval have stimulated movement across national borders, migrants and refugees in particular are assailed by new measures of discrimination on an enormous scale. Trends in human population movements and toward an increasingly international labor force make it particularly urgent to address racism as a factor in the generation and management of migration and refugee flows and in its relation to international and domestic conflict. Women migrants suffer particularly, in trafficking and forced prostitution, in the lack of protection in the work place, and in constraints on family life imposed by migration and the specter of statelessness.

Government policies and practices may have a pernicious discriminatory effect even where discriminatory intent is not clearly established. Such public policy and administrative practice can effectively bar members of groups defined on racial or related grounds from the enjoyment of their fundamental human rights no less than do systems of overt discrimination.

The atrocities of apartheid, genocide, slavery, caste-based violence, and what has come to be known as "ethnic cleansing" are at the extreme end of the spectrum of racial discrimination. So too is the discriminatory treatment of indigenous peoples that threatens their very survival. Progress in international justice to fight impunity for these extreme forms of racism, and in international action to protect vulnerable populations gives us new tools in the campaign toward its eradication.

This conference must address the extreme, overt, intentional, and often violent policies and practices of racism that suppress the exercise of the rights of whole peoples. It must

further explore and expose the ways in which race and descent combine with gender to curtail the rights of women. The international community must support the new mechanisms of international monitoring, protection, and justice as a bulwark against these forms of racism. But the conference must also address the racist effect of government policies and practices that affect hundreds of millions of people even when racist intent is not clearly present.

The focus of Human Rights Watch in the lead up to the 2001 conference is upon four areas in which the racist effect of government policies and practices is presently vitiating the rights of huge sectors of humanity. In each of these areas, unlike the unabashed racism of apartheid, de jure segregation, or genocide, racist intent is muted, diffuse, or even absent. Even the racist effect of discriminatory practices and policy is largely denied. Yet the impact of these policies and practices, both those established by law and administrative act and those resulting from a failure of state action, strips whole peoples of their rights. This racist effect is a consequence of:

  • Discrimination in the determination of nationality and citizenship rights.
  • Discrimination in criminal justice and in the public administration of state institutions, services, and resources.
  • Discrimination in the treatment of migrants and refugees; and
  • Discrimination by reason of caste.

To address these issues, Human Rights Watch will be exploring practical measures behind which to mobilize international action. The broad appeals will include:

  • A call to end the deprivation of citizenship on racial and related grounds. State policies and practices concerning nationality, citizenship, or naturalization require scrutiny under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination's requirement "that such provisions do not discriminate against any particular nationality." International agreements on statelessness should be ratified as a matter of priority; but these standards alone are inadequate to eliminate this widespread and pernicious form of racial discrimination.
  • A call for states to systematically collect and report information on law enforcement and the administration of justice as it concerns different population groups, with a view to identifying and remedying any discriminatory purpose or effect; and to monitor the administration of public affairs in such areas as education, health care, housing, and the enforcement of labor rights with a view to identifying and remedying any discriminatory purpose or effect in public policy and programs.
  • A call to develop an international program of action to make caste- or descent-based segregation, violence, and other abuses as intolerable as apartheid.
  • A call to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families as a measure of protection against discriminatory treatment; to apply international refugee law to refugees without discrimination; and to develop an international monitoring system by which to detect and remedy discriminatory treatment of migrants and refugees.

The U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance offers the international community a unique opportunity to devise new and practical measures to address specific problems of discrimination. International standards already provide a firm foundation for the elimination of racial discrimination, but new standards are required, backed by new commitments to monitoring, reporting, and remedial mechanisms to ensure implementation of domestic and international standards and make real progress to this end.

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