Racism has been a stain on human history, from slavery to the Holocaust to the genocide in Rwanda, yet it continues all over the world, from the silencing of religious minorities and indigenous peoples, to ethnic war, discrimination and xenophobia against migrants.
Racism taints everything and harms everyone. It prohibits, inhibits and stifles diversity and voices. It is too important to ignore or to overlook.
As most nations gathered in Geneva on April 20 for the Review of the 2001 World Conference Against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, my organisation, Human Rights Watch, together with ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders, have come together to say that we believe the international community has an obligation to ensure that the UN advances in the fight against racism by reinforcing the precious right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The organisations we represent know, from our daily work, that there is too much to be lost by ignoring these rights and everything to be gained by ensuring that the fight against racism is carried out through strengthening free speech, pluralism and the diversity of voices in our societies.
This year's Review Conference in Geneva was set up to examine what has been accomplished since the last conference, in Durban, South Africa in 2001. That conference achieved important results on many issues including the protection of migrants and refugees, repairing the legacy of slavery and women's rights, but was overshadowed by the unacceptable behaviour of a number of NGOs during a parallel NGO Forum. Tensions also arose from the polarisation of the negotiations around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which led to a US and Israeli pullout. Nonetheless, the final declaration was a compromise that all nations there accepted, recognising the Palestinian people's right to self-determination and "the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel."
Eight years later, though, and following the 11 September attacks in the United States, the tensions remain. Repressive antiterrorism policies have aggravated the tensions between the West and the non-Western world. The concept of religious defamation emerged - but it has been opposed by most of the human rights community and it has muddied the debate on racism. We know all too well that laws that try to silence people on this score, so-called apostasy laws, only harm minorities and result in more racism.
Some groups, fearing a repeat of the unacceptable behaviour at Durban, advocated boycotting the review conference.
Despite the initial tensions, both the concept of "religious defamation" and the question of the Middle East conflict have been dropped from the draft text for the Review Conference. There is reason to remain vigilant about the outcome, and we need to defend protection against all forms of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.
But there is also reason to give the Review Conference a chance. The draft text provides a unique opportunity for Member States to go beyond the polarisation of the racism debate in the UN, in order take up their responsibility to combat racism more seriously.
Civil society, member states and the UN should fight racism in all corners of the world, at local, national and international levels. It means acknowledging that the victims of racism do not gain from hate and revenge or from silencing dissent. When communities are denied a voice, their issues, experiences and concerns are made invisible and they become even more vulnerable to bigotry, prejudice and marginalisation. Racism is not only silencing. It requires silencing to exist and survive.
There are those who would like to see this conference fail, either because of their narrow political agendas, their inability to recognise that racism harms everyone and is present everywhere or because they have lost faith in the UN. But we have a duty to the victims of racism to make this conference succeed. All states must fully engage in the process. The US can be no exception and should reconsider its refusal to take part.
But the Geneva Review Conference is an important chance to ensure that the fight against racism gets its proper place at the UN. It is an opportunity we should not throw away.