Special Guest Post for Human Rights Day

By Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Old and new forms of discrimination and intolerance continue to divide communities all over the world. Sentiments of xenophobia are on the rise. They are often manipulated for demagogic purposes or even for sinister political agendas. Day after day, their corrosive effects undermine the rights of countless victims. This is why today on Human Rights Day, the United Nations is urging everyone everywhere in the world to embrace diversity and end discrimination.

Discrimination can take many forms covert or blatant, public or private. It may appear as institutionalized racism, or ethnic strife, or manifest itself in episodes of intolerance and rejection that escape scrutiny. Its victims are individuals or groups that are most vulnerable to attacks—all those that, due to their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, status, disabilities, and sexual orientation are perceived as different.

Discrimination is often multilayered. Groups that are marginalized on their basis of their origin or status encounter further exclusion and a curtailment of their rights when they attempt to have the access that international law entitles them to housing, food, health care and education.

Persons with disabilities make up the world’s largest and most disadvantaged minority. For example, 98% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school. Indigenous peoples represent 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of its poorest people. Women account for two-thirds of the world’s working hours and produce half of the world’s food. Yet, due to discrimination and stereotypical gender roles, they earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property.

History has proved time and again that, when discrimination, inequality and intolerance are allowed to take root, they may shatter the very foundations of societies and damage them for generations. Left unchecked, they may spill across borders and poison relations among nations.

History has also proved that these abhorrent practices have no beneficial aspects whatsoever. Discrimination undermines the social and economic cohesion of societies. It saps their resources. It squanders talent. It marginalizes productive individuals and groups, and depresses their creativity and initiative.

We must counter the bigotry and narrow interests that engender discrimination, and we have done so. The vision of human rights advocates, their sheer determination and energy have paid off by raising awareness among the public and by producing a number of human rights treaties that give effect to anti-discrimination and equality provisions. These treaties create a protective web of obligations that States must fulfill. They restore the dignity previously denied to millions of women, men and children.

Building on this body of norms, in 2001 the World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in Durban, and its review conference in Geneva last April were convened to address some of the most insidious aspects of discrimination. The latter wrapped up with wide agreement in which 182 States undertook to prevent, prohibit and address all manifestations of racism and intolerance. It re-energized the determination and purpose expressed in Durban to erase the age-old shame of racism and provided a platform for a new beginning in fighting discrimination writ large.

It is undeniable that progress has been remarkable, but we should not pause. Discrimination does not go away by itself. It must be challenged at every turn. We must move forward and move quickly.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the enjoyment of human rights enriches us all. Conversely, when human dignity is undercut or denied by human rights violations, then such abuses affect all of us. This is particularly true in our increasingly multi-ethnic and multicultural societies. It is particularly urgent to counter discrimination in times of crisis, such as the current economic downturn, which have a disproportionate impact on the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and already marginalized groups of society, as competition over dwindling resources exposes minorities to suspicions and attacks.

On this very day in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated unequivocally that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. More than sixty years later, these words resonate with unaltered poignancy. Let us make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ principles of equality, freedom and dignity for all a reality everywhere. Universal tolerance and respect for diversity is our goal.