I almost missed this, but for those who did – March 21 was the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to be followed by a week of awareness.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted,”This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the launch of the International Decade for People of African Descent…We have seen the end of colonialism, the dismantling of apartheid and the rise of a global movement for equality. Yet, as history and current events attest, racial discrimination still presents a clear danger to people and communities in all regions.” A statement from three UN human rights specialists adds, “Only by recognising and learning from history can we make past successes a contemporary reality.”
A woman holds a placard during a march to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in London March 21, 2015. REUTERS/Neil Hall
Do we learn from history? Or is it just repeating itself in different ways, around the world?
Jamaica’s Professor Verene Shepherd, who heads the University of the West Indies’ Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the Mona Campus in Kingston, gave the keynote speech on this year’s theme at the UN General Assembly in New York last Friday, March 20. I am happy to share this with you, for your interest.
Keynote Speech Delivered at the United Nations on the Occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Theme: “Learning from Historical Tragedies to Combat Racial Discrimination Today”
©Professor Verene A. Shepherd
The University of the West Indies, Jamaica
Member of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
March 20, 2015
United Nations General Assembly, New York
Your Excellency, Suzanna Malcora, Chief of Cabinet to the Secretary General
Vice President of the General Assembly, Mr. Mahmadamin Mahmadaminov
It is a privilege for me to address you as we approach this important International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, proclaimed by this United Nations General Assembly in 1966– six years after the tragedy in South Africa that inspired its proclamation, and marked annually on March 21. I thank the President of the General Assembly, His Excellency Sam Kutesa, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and my colleague members of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, for this signal honour. I applaud all of you assembled here this morning for showing, by your presence, that you share a common concern for the creation of a world in which racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance play no part, either in our personal lives or in our international relations.
Like me, you believe in the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the group of international instruments adopted after World War II, as a response to the atrocities of the War, to protect the human rights and inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of the human family. Within this context, racial discrimination is to be treated as abhorrent. So, I acknowledge the appropriateness of the theme chosen for this year’s commemoration: “Learning from Historical Tragedies to Combat Racial Discrimination Today”; and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (the ICERD) – the 50th anniversary of which we mark this year – is very explicit about what constitutes racial discrimination. It is,
… any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.
Many of us here are familiar with the major historical tragedies or inhumane actions that have affected global history and which were related to racial or ethnic hierarchizing and discrimination, including conquest, colonization, genocide against indigenous and minority populations, the African Maafa (called by some the trans-Atlantic “slave trade” and African enslavement); wars to suppress enslaved-led protests, anti-colonial uprisings, the Jewish Holocaust; racial apartheid, the brutal suppression of civil rights and labour movements– and the list goes on.
There was untold suffering as a result of these tragedies and inhumane acts, including murder, torture, public flogging, imprisonment and general humiliation; and the descendants of those whose ancestors suffered, for example from the African Maafa and the Jewish Holocaust, have tried to find ways to memorialize their ancestors and seek redress for such tragedies, including through reparation.
Mr Vice President, I stand before you as a product of some of those historical tragedies, the most tragic of which were the forced relocation of my ancestors from Africa and parts of Asia to a life of enslavement and contract labour in the Caribbean and the post-slavery and post-indentureship regime of racial apartheid and neo-colonialism that so scarred Caribbean societies. But, I also stand before you as a living example of what the battle against such historical tragedies can produce – a scholar activist and human rights defender, with no hate in her heart, who can work in local, regional and international spaces with other committed advocates to try to banish the legacies of those tragedies from our landscape.
But, Mr Vice President, I do harbour some degree of anxiety; anxiety, Mr Vice President, because almost 50 years after the proclamation of this International Day, too many individuals, communities and societies continue to suffer from the injustices and stigma that racism brings. And those who suffer most from racism and racial discrimination are Africans and people of African descent. But the United Nations Programme of Activities for the Decade for People of African descent, launched right here on International Human Rights Day last year, with the theme “Recognition, Justice, Development”, offers us diverse strategies for righting the wrongs of the past so that we can build a more peaceful world.
Yes, Mr Vice President: we continue to be confronted with evidence that we are still some way from realising that goal of universal peace, inter-ethnic harmony and unbiased justice that so many have worked to achieve, indeed shed their blood to attain. We see the evidence today in the hands in the air [because] black lives and all matter campaign that has transformed itself from a local movement in the USA to a global movement; in the racial taunts directed at black players at football games where, on occasion, “macaco” (monkey) is shouted from the stands with complete disregard for the feelings of those affected; in institutional and structural racism; in racial profiling at international borders and within some countries; in messages and ideas based on racism, racial superiority or hatred that incite racism in differential access to quality education, employment and justice; in biased textual and visual representations, cartoons and journalistic pieces that disrespect others’ religion and ethnicity; in everyday speech and attitudes that reflect xenophobia and bigotry; in cultural practices that humiliate particular ethnic groups; in the iconic symbols placed in some spaces that remind formerly oppressed populations of the perpetrators of the tragedies of the past — and in so many other areas.
So, today, I join with the international community in the global call for concrete action for the total elimination of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance, and the comprehensive implementation of, and follow up to, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (the DDPA).
This year, 2015, is a timely reminder to all of us of our responsibilities to those who are the victims of racism and racial discrimination, as there is a coincidence of anniversaries that remind us of the tragedies of the past. It is the 51st anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the USA; it is the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that March 7 day in 1965 when police beat voting-rights activists as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to insist on voting rights; it is the 150th anniversary of the 1865 Morant Bay Massacre in Jamaica, when over 400 Jamaicans were murdered by colonial forces; it is the 200th anniversary of Simón Bolívar’s “Carta de Jamaica,” in which he explained his mission to liberate Latin America from colonial oppression; and it is the 211th anniversary of Haitian Independence – won by enslaved and free black people in a country that made the colonial oppressor rich but impoverished a whole nation.
But, Mr Vice President, there is hope amidst the painful memories. As we reflect on 21 March 1960 when police opened fire and killed 69 men, women and children at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa against the apartheid pass laws, let us celebrate the fact that since that tragic day, the apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled and South Africa has made great efforts to ensure that never again will such an evil system as racial apartheid ever raise its ugly head in their country.
The global community has also made strides in terms of the elimination of racism and racial discrimination. Colonialism has ended in many more countries since 1960 and the superstructure of slavery and racial apartheid has been dismantled. Racist laws and practices have been abolished in many countries, and the United Nations has built an international framework for fighting racism, guided by the ICERD, as well as by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other rights-based instruments.
Let us commit ourselves today to the fight against the repetition of historical tragedies. The USA has its Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of the Bloody Sunday clashes, but we can build our own metaphorical or symbolic bridges – bridges of understanding – and extend such bridges – across the human family- from Alaska to Argentina; from the Norwegian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea; from Scotland to Siberia; from Algiers to Cape Town; from Jordan to Japan and from Russia to New Zealand- hands across the world for the good of us all and in memory of victims of historical tragedies and the revolutionary struggles against various injustices. And so today we remember some of the victims of the Sharpville Massacre, among them, Wiggi Bakela, James Beshe, Ephraim Chaka, Gilbert Demo, Eliot Kabe, Miriam Lekitla and Paulina Mafulatse.
The Americas – the region in which one of the most heinous crimes against humanity was committed and where each day we struggle to eliminate the remnants of historical tragedies and racial discrimination – also had victims of revolutionary struggles to end slavery and racial apartheid. We must sing praise songs for these men and women whose revolutionary ideology and programmes were clearly anchored in their experiences and in their sense of what had become, as the late Professor Rex Nettleford often termed it, a derided and emasculated ancestral culture.
May Nelson Mandela’s impassioned words forever ring in our ears: “Never, Never, and Never Again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another”.  And may we modify those words and make our own commitment and pledge “Never, Never and Never again will our beautiful world, continue to be scarred by racial hatred and intolerance of diversity and descend into chaos because of obduracy and intolerance.” But there can be no peace without justice. Robert Nesta (known to you as “Bob” ), Marley, that revolutionary icon, using the philosophy of His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie the 1st long cautioned (and I paraphrase; I dare to paraphrase):
Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; everywhere is war. Until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation; until the colour of a person’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his/her eyes; until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all, without regard to race – Dis a war. That until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship and rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained.
To avoid any such consequence, 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, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance and let us do it now in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance, and by so doing demonstrate our commitment to the foundational principle of the inherent dignity of the human person.
I thank you, Mr Vice President.
 Resolution 2142 (XXI))
 Expressed in the preamble and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the preamble to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights and in the preamble to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
 Article 1, Para. 1 of ICERD
 A mandate given us by this United Nations on 18th December 2014 by GA Resolution 69/162.
 Nelson Mandela, 10th May 1994
Mourners at a funeral ceremony in Cape Province for those who were killed by the South African police at Langa Township in Uitenhage (1985). UN Photo