International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – Celebrating the paradox
Written by Viera Striskova, University of Geneva.
This December marks a momentous occasion as it will be 50 years since the adoption of the first legally binding international treaty protecting human rights: the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). A necessary reflection on the issue started with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – an event which is celebrated each year on 21st March. This year’s theme, “Learning from historical tragedies to combat racial discrimination today” aimed to explore the root causes of racism and racial discrimination, stressing the need to learn the lessons history has provided in order to combat contemporary racism and racial discrimination.
The ICERD was adopted after the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust, Segregation and Apartheid; all of these gross violations of human rights were driven by the conviction that some groups of people were less valuable than others. Importantly, as the ICERD was created in the aftermath of World War II, its preamble clearly states that: “any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous”, and that there is “no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice.”
Herein, for me, lies a paradox: race is a social construct derived mainly from perceptions conditioned by events of recorded history, and it has no basic biological reality; there is only one race: a human race. Race as biology is fiction; racism as a social problem is real. While I am aware of the importance of dialogue and ensuing justice for past atrocities, I also think it’s important in today’s discussion that we challenge these social constructions. One example of this is the No Race, No Hate campaign. It is important to recognize that not only is any doctrine of racial superiority is false, the idea of having different races is morally and scientifically unfounded. Therefore, it seems paradoxical to me that we are fighting something that can be scientifically proven as false and non-existent. We can fight xenophobia, discrimination, or pigmentocracy but not to fight against racism. Although, I am convinced that all human rights activists sincerely promote equal value and inherent dignity of all human beings, but when fighting against racism, we often end up promoting the false existence of different races and their hierarchy, which I do not think is what we really want.
In contemporary international law, the interdiction of racial discrimination is an important obligation erga omnes for all States, also called ius cogens. Discrimination can be seen, felt or heard. When heard, it takes form of hate speech. Since there is no universally agreed upon definition of hate speech, I will offer you mine: any unidirectional speech that uses biased language relying on false facts towards a self-defined community; and does not allow the opposition (the attacked group) to defend or debate. One of the problems of hate speech is that the hatred does not end with words but often incites violence, and then discrimination is felt. It threates public safety and endangers the physical integrity of vulnerable individuals. Therefore, there is a public interest to have hate speech punished by law.
International human rights law provides us with a general framework on how to legislate against hate speech. For example, ICERD Article 4 asks States that “all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination “be punishable by a (penal) law”. In addition, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Articles 19 and 20 further discuss what speech may or may not be allowed. In order to comply with international obligations, for more than 50 years, States have focused on punishing hate speech by law. The results of this can be seen in numerous laws pertaining to such limitations on speech.
ICERD, ICCPR and other international human rights treaties also ask States to adopt positive measures to promote tolerance. However to date, most States have adopted negative measures rather than positive ones. Perhaps that is because the adoption of a law is easier and less costly than organizing new educational programmes. However, when analyzing the effectiveness of such measures, the first conclusion that comes to my mind is that we have had laws punishing hate speech for over 50 years and hatred is still common among people, so perhaps, the time has come to embrace a different approach. Until now, all international and national non-legal strategies, including the Durban Conference or sport campaigns have been related to fighting racism.
I think that fighting and/or declaring war is an unnecessarily negative feature that brings with it similarly negative emotions. This has been evident within the past 50 years of activity promoting human rights and human dignity. I am more than happy to see positive approaches, such as community-based action plans which are becoming more frequent options among stakeholders to fight extremism, intolerance and racism. The promotion of tolerance and understanding that all people are equal in their dignity, regardless of the color of their skin, national, ethnic or religious background make our society happier and freer from prejudices, stereotypes and, in the end, all hate crimes. All of us can and should focus on changing our vocabulary and on providing more love speech instead of hate speech.