By Lukman Harees –
“Racism is a scourge affecting every element of conflict with dramatic, often uncontrollable consequences. Only together and fighting relentlessly on all fronts can we destroy these seeds of hatred sown in the minds of men, seeds which flourish in times of economic unease, social exclusion and psychological despair.”- Koïchiro Matsuura(former Director-General of UNESCO) -Message of 21 March 2003 (extract)
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination falls on March 21. The General Assembly of the UN on that day calls on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.
A focal point in history in this regard has been what made March 21st the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which is being observed annually. On that day in 1960, police shot and killed 69 people (including eight women and ten children) and injured 180 at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa. More than 80% of those killed had been shot in the back. 7,000 individuals had gathered to rally against apartheid and its “pass laws,” which required all Africans to carry a Pass Book, enabling the South African government to restrict and monitor their whereabouts. Anyone found without a passbook could be arrested and detained for up to thirty days. It was this day which rekindled the conscience of the global community to fight this ugly menace.
Throughout its history the United Nations has worked to eliminate racial discrimination. The UN Charter adopted in 1945 proclaimed equality among the Member States. Three years later the Universal Declaration of Human Rights –UDHR, adopted by the General Assembly (GA) raised a new consciousness around the world about the human equality and the rights possessed by individuals. This new consciousness about the protection of human dignity reached full expression in 1963 when the GA adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The follow-up to this important, but not legally binding, Declaration was the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965(ICERD).ICERD supports achievement of one of the main purposes of the United Nations: promoting and encouraging universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all global citizens, regardless of race, sex, language, or religion.
It has been a fact that there has been notable progress in making real many human rights enshrined in the UDHR – but racial discrimination and hatred, including hate-motivated actions and crimes, remain far too prevalent across the world we live in. These threats are compounded by deepening inequalities, and rising exclusion and marginalisation, which weaken the fabric of societies. Racial discrimination violates the inherent rights and dignity of women and men. It holds back entire societies from lasting peace, and it sets obstacles before inclusive, sustainable development. Emerging trends, racism and a lack of accountability for racist acts continue however to occur worldwide despite protection guarantees rooted in international laws. We are living at a point in history when bigotry has been impoverishing the world, seeking to divide humanity against itself and undermine the inexhaustible strength that lies in our diversity.
Sadly even just close to seven decades after UDHR adoption, racism is thus still a global reality. Racism has gone way beyond being a mere ideological construct and has grown into a wave of populism in the recent past. The world has been watching in shock and awe, as many populist movements began to unravel in the West: the meteoric rise of alt-right racist small parties in Europe, with the much divisive Brexit campaign taking centre-piece, while Trump made it to the White House, despite his obnoxious racist inclinations. “I think we have an environment where people feel comfortable with stereotypes,” says Lee, the author of Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity. “People feel they have a license to act and speak out in very intolerant ways”.
In the 10 days following the 2016 US presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit legal organization that uses legal action, education and advocacy to fight racism and bigotry, received almost 900 reports of bias-related incidents of harassment and intimidation as part of what it termed a “national outbreak of hate.” Ethnic and religious minorities in Europe continue to suffer from discrimination and prejudice and face disadvantages in a whole host of areas, from employment and education to housing and policing, a report published by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) revealed.
It may be comforting to think of it as confined to the West and as reflecting colonialism and the slave trade. But forms of racism with equally sorry histories are to be found also in other regions of the world; in fact in all regions. Therefore, racism should be understood as a worldwide phenomenon that requires a worldwide response. All societies, and all of us within must address racism in the forms that it manifests itself in our lives and cultures. There has also been a disturbing increase in intolerance and hate speech in many parts of the world, which has made a mockery of the laudable aspirations of the UN and UDHR, under which it is essential that governments stand against hate and genuinely demonstrate their commitment to protect the human rights of everyone in all communities.
In Sri Lanka, the Constitution clearly guarantees all citizens the right to equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religion and religious worship. However, despite such guarantees, both political leadership and law enforcement authorities have consistently ignored the imperative need to take racist offenders to book and maintain fair-play. Thus, scourges of racism raised its’ head once again specially in the Post War period, spreading fear and insecurity among specially the minorities in the country and raising concerns among civil society and human rights groups. This hate and racism virus has spread to all corners catalysed by a fringe but powerful Sinhala Buddhist lobby led by rogue sections of the Maha Sangha. Sri Lankan government, through the Geneva resolution, has committed itself to accountability and reconciliation, and has an obligation to make clear that inflammatory hate speeches and racist /religious attacks and campaigns such as those we have heard in recent times have no place in a culture committed to these principles.
It was unfortunate that Tamil community still feels alienated even after many years of the end to the bloody war while the Muslim community has become the next-in-line target of the extremists. The number of attacks against religious and ethnic numerical minorities across Sri Lanka specially Muslims, by ethno-nationalist majoritarian groups, typically led by one or more Buddhist monks, remains unchecked. Civil society groups have consistently documented and reported such attacks to relevant authorities. However, charges have never been brought against the perpetrators, despite the conduct of these monks being in clear violation of hate-speech and anti-discrimination protections under Sri Lankan law. BBS led Aluthgama communal violence for example stills remains un-investigated and culprits are still at large.
It is matter of regret and disappointment that even after this Yahapalana government came to office , this racist epidemic still runs riot, although in a bit subdued scale. Even in Myanmar, the leading Buddhist clergy body has banned the hate monk Ven Wirathu from delivering sermons for an year. It is timely that Mayanayakas too take this stand against the rogue elements preaching hatred. Equally, it is important that ACJU too take a firm stand against any rogue elements among Ulemas preaching extremist/ hate views which will harm the process of peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Government too should take a firm stand against any forms of hatred against other communities and take all steps to remove racial discrimination. Specially, at a time when Islamophobia has become a global industry, it is important that the government has a close tab on the use of social media by the hate mongers to spread malicious, false and misleading stories and news to incite inter faith tensions and act firmly against them.
All of us have difficulty with the idea that although we are all different, we all should be treated the same. It seems ‘natural’ to ascribe negative meanings to differences, to associate difference with the supposedly inferior or superior or the dangerous. It is not, however, natural. It is something we learn and is therefore something we can unlearn. The fight against racism therefore begins with being informed. Further, for reconciliation to become a reality, mere constitutional changes and laws respecting and protecting the rights of all will not suffice; it is also important to initiate a deep change of understanding, vision and mentality. This monumental challenge cannot be faced only by the leaders. For a change of mentality especially in the south, the engagement of the religious leadership specially the Buddhist clergy is specially crucial.
Racism springs from the lie that certain human beings are less than fully human. It’s a self-centered falsehood that corrupts our minds into believing we are right to treat others as we would not want to be treated. The Holocaust illustrated the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction. The challenge for all of us is therefore not to be passive in accepting the hand history has played, but to work for positive change that can leave behind what has been negative about the past. It is important the we ensue an era in which gives us the necessary values and means to work to end such inequalities and the prejudices and attitudes that sustain them. We don’t fight racism with racism; the best way to fight racism is with solidarity as it affects all communities in one way or another.