The major historical tragedies related to racial or ethnic discrimination that had affected global history were not so remote that people could not recall them, said Verene Shepherd, a member of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent of the Human Rights Council and the meeting’s keynote speaker.
The descendants of those who had suffered from the transatlantic slave trade known as the African Maafa or the Jewish Holocaust had sought ways to memorialize their ancestors and find redress for such tragedies, including through reparation.
Those who suffered most were African or of African descent, she said. Thus, the launch of the United Nations activities programme for the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), themed “Recognition, Justice, Development”, was critical as it offered diverse strategies for righting the wrongs of the past.
“Let us do today what we did in the past to end slavery, apartheid, colonial rule, discriminatory laws and practices and various unjust wars — form a united front comprising all nations, ethnic and religious groups, genders, classes and castes to end racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and let us do it now in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance,” she said.
Acknowledging the profound and lasting impacts of such human rights tragedies as slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, Mahmadamin Mahmadaminov, the Permanent Representative of Tajikistan, delivering a statement on behalf of General Assembly President Sam Kutesa, said that the theme of this year’s commemoration of the International Day, “Learning from historical tragedies to combat racial discrimination today”, drew attention to past tragedies and called upon “each of us to act decisively to combat all forms of racism and racial discrimination”.
Established in remembrance of the 69 unarmed, peaceful protesters killed in Sharpeville, South Africa, on 21 March 1960, the annual commemoration united the international community to preserve historical memory and draw lessons to protect humanity and prevent recurrence.
It was also necessary to correct historical wrongs so intolerance could be eradicated, Susana Malcorra, Chef de Cabinet of the Secretary-General said. While there had been progress in the fight against racism and racial discrimination, she stressed that it still presented a clear danger to people and communities in all regions. Lasting peace could only be built on the premise that all people had equal rights regardless of gender, racial, social or other status.
To that end, she urged all nations to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Robust policies and laws must be put into place that would end all forms of discrimination, as enshrined in the Convention. It was important to keep the spotlight on such issues and educate the young so that people never forgot the dangers inherent in racism. In January, the international community commemorated the victims of the Holocaust, and next month would unveil the memorial of slavery. People must learn from past prejudice to combat racism today, which was why today’s event was so important.
Human beings were born free and equal in dignity and in rights, and all members of society, without distinction of any kind, must be treated equally, said Matej Marn, Deputy Permanent Representative of Slovenia. Speaking on behalf of the Eastern European States, he said that racism nevertheless continued to cause suffering for millions of people around the world. Education and awareness-raising were important tools in combating racism, and remembering tragic events like the Sharpeville massacre helped ensure that such abuses of human rights could never be repeated.
Similarly, the representative of Jamaica said the theme of “learning from historical tragedies” was most fitting, because taking a look at such events that had racial discrimination at their root, such as slavery, the Holocaust, apartheid, genocide and segregation provided the impetus to ensure that horrors such as those never reoccurred. Speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean States, he said that racism had no place in the world and its negative consequences were embodies in the discrimination and dehumanisation faced by too many of the world’s citizens must be addressed with greater urgency and effectiveness.
Speaking on behalf of the Group of Western European States, Bénédicte Frankinet, Belgium’s Permanent Representative, said this month also commemorated another important historical event, namely the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, when United States state police officers violently attacked a peaceful demonstration of people marching to defend civil rights. She honoured those who paved the way, such as Nelson Mandela against apartheid in South Africa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the march from Selma to Montgomery with thousands of peaceful demonstrators for the right to vote. She also paid tribute to the extraordinary people who made efforts to combat racial discrimination in less visible ways. Those efforts, she said, had been crucial in the world campaign to eliminate racism.
Over the last 59 years, progress had been achieved to combat racial discrimination, but those ills were still rooted in societies, and in certain cases tensions had worsened, she said. It was necessary to adopt basic measures in this regard, since history had shown that racism and racial discrimination threatened the very foundation of societies, leaving behind harmful traces for generations. The international community should draw lessons from past tragedies and redouble efforts to combat racism today.
The General Assembly will reconvene at a date and time to be announced.
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