Tag Archives: United Nations

Brazil Takes Another Step Towards Belo Monte While Activists Step up the Fight

The Brazilian government has ignored legal challenges from two of it’s own agencies, national and international protests, and requests from an international human rights court to halt production on the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam due to it’s failure to comply with an international law requiring prior consultation with the affected indigenous communities. Brazilian officials have gone as far as preventing a distinguished Brazilian indigenous advocate from attending a recent United Nations event due to her opposition, but the fight over the legality of the process is not over and has gone to another international forum.

While these events are playing out President Dilma Rousseff has simultaneously unveiled an ambitious anti-poverty program called “Brazil Without Misery” which seeks to lift over 16 million Brazilians out of severe poverty, while pushing the Belo Monte project which, according to many observers, will displace at least 20,000 people and ruin the livelihoods of approximately 40,000 mostly indigenous Brazilians.

The Brazilian Government’s Environmental Agency (IBAMA) announced on June 1s that it had issued the full installation license for construction of Belo Monte to Norte Energia (NESA), the dam building consortium that had, according to prior IBAMA findings, still not complied with various social and environmental conditions required for an installation license.

Two days later, on June 3rd a group of Brazilian human rights organizations filed an official request with the United Nations Human Rights Council to address concerns they had with the building of the Belo Monte Dam.

In a joint press statement Global Justice Brazil, the Para Society of Defense of Human Rights (SDDH) and Conectas Human Rights said, “they are expressing their concern in relation to the attitude of the Brazilian government towards the precautionary measures issued by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR ) of the Organization of American States, in April, to suspend construction until the rights to prior, free and informed consultation of the indigenous peoples were met.”

In April of this year the IACHR issued a precautionary measures order, requesting that construction of the Belo Monte project be suspended until indigenous communities had a chance for prior consultation.

The matter is on the Council’s agenda for the 17th session in Geneva this year, and the activists are hoping that the UN Council will take into account several points.

“The Brazilian government is systematically ignoring warnings from the scientific community, organized civil society, environmentalists, river communities, indigenous peoples, the Public Ministry and human rights organizations,” said Roberta Amanajas, spokesperson for SDDH.  “With the issuance of the installation license, Brazil is now going over the heads of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, which is the principal defender of human rights of the Americas. How can a country defend its positions on the strengthening of multilateral entities of consensus on human rights, when it itself is systematically violating them, as with the case of Belo Monte?”

In the same press statement the group asserted that the Belo Monte project would affect the lives of at least 24 indigenous peoples, cause forced displacement and create food and water insecurities that would also lead to an increase in disease. They also noted that the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues, James Anaya, had expressed his concern over the lack of consultation with indigenous peoples in his visits in both 2009 and 2010.

It was this lack of consultation that was one of the main points that the noted activist, Azelene Kaingang, had hoped to address at the recent UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May. Kaingang is a sociologist and has participated at the Forum, was a co-chair of the OAS Indigenous Caucus and has been an official of Brazil’s own National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) for several years.  A few days before leaving for the event Kaingang was informed that she would not be sent to attend the forum. In an interview on June 6, she explained why FUNAI had prevented her attendance and why she opposes the construction of the Belo Monte dam.

“FUNAI is an agency of a government,” Kaingang stated, “that is afraid of the truth…that doesn’t want to see the truth about Belo Monte and my participation at the event was focused on participating in events at the United Nations that denounced the construction of the dam and on its consequences.”

“I oppose this,” she continued, “because the Brazilian state is violating a major component of the International Covenant on Labor, which states that indigenous people have the right to prior consultation when affected by this type of project. I oppose this because I am indigenous, because I oppose the violence committed against indigenous peoples… I oppose this because the indigenous peoples are part of the Brazilian state and as such they want to be duly consulted and participate in the process of development of the country, which is also ours. I oppose this because it puts at risk the lives and cultures of indigenous peoples, along with the fact that it will cause unprecedented environmental destruction.”

Kaingang also noted that it was ironic “without a doubt” that while the government starts its Brazil Without Misery campaign “…it is making indigenous people poor by forcing them off of their land and their traditional ways of life.”

In the meantime, a few days after the Kaingang interview, Brazil’s Federal Public Prosecutor (MPF) filed its 11th civil action lawsuit against the Belo Monte project, demanding immediate suspension of the installation license due to non-compliance with a series of social and environmental safeguards that IBAMA itself had stipulated as prerequisites for dam construction to commence.

Ecuador: Saving Lives Through Birth Choices

Click here to view the embedded video.

Giving birth in communities like those in Ecuador can be a very dangerous occasion, especially for Indigenous women. In a report released by the United Nations recently, the concerns are being addressed as hospitals are starting to work with Indigenous Peoples on the cultural aspects while promoting a healthy delivery. As the video states, through these efforts the numbers of birthing deaths in Ecuador are on the decline.

Bolivia Withdraws from UN Treaty That Limits Chewing Coca Leaf

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales announced July 7 that he has withdrawn the Andean country from a United Nations treaty that bans chewing the coca leaf.

The coca leaf can be processed to produce cocaine, but it is also an important part of Andean culture. In Bolivia, South America’s most indigenous nation, the leaf has been chewed to relieve hunger and thirst and used in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. It has particular importance in western Bolivia’s Aymara and Quechua indigenous communities. A limited amount of coca leaf is legally planted in the country for traditional use, while leaf grown beyond Bolivia’s legal limit is often funneled to cocaine production.

Bolivia presented a denunciation which seals its resignation from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs on June 29, a move state media confirmed for the first time today.

The denunciation responds to “the need to guarantee respect for the human rights of indigenous peoples, and all who chew coca as a traditional cultural practice,” said Bolivia’s foreign minister David Choquehuanca of the country’s unprecedented resignation from the Convention.

The International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors government compliance with drug treaties, released a statement expressing regret at Bolivia’s denunciation of the Convention. The Control Board encouraged the international community to reject moves by any country to leave the Convention and return with reservations, saying this “would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system, undoing the good work of Governments over many years to achieve the aims and objectives of the drug control conventions, including the prevention of drug abuse which is devastating the lives of millions of people.”

Within Bolivia opinions are mixed on withdrawing from the convention. “We don’t see it as a positive in any way that we, Bolivians, who have so many problems because of drug trafficking, have left the Convention,” said opposition representative to congress Javier Leigue.

The move comes at a tense moment for anti-trafficking efforts in Bolivia, as a top Bolivian police official faces charges in the U.S. of cocaine trafficking following a U.S.-led sting in Panama. An internal investigation in Bolivia, the world’s third-largest producer of coca leaf after Peru and Colombia, implicated several more Bolivian police officials in trafficking.

Earlier this year The United Nations considered an amendment to the Single Convention sponsored by Bolivia that proposed sections of the Convention requiring an end to chewing the coca leaf be removed.

“Due to lack of information, in some countries they confuse the coca leaf with cocaine, coca leaf producers with drug-traffickers and people who use coca in its natural state with addicts,” Morales, Bolivia’s Aymara Indian President, said after the amendment was rejected by countries party to the convention.

The country’s resignation from the Convention becomes effective January 1, 2012, at which time Bolivian officials say the country will immediately apply to rejoin the Convention with the reservation that it does not recognize language that bans chewing the coca leaf. In order to rejoin, two thirds of the signatories to the convention will need to approve Bolivia’s reentry, according to United Nations sources in Bolivia. Government officials say Bolivia will continue to comply with all commitments to fight drug trafficking laid out in the Convention.

The outcome of Bolivia’s bold move to make chewing coca legal in the country under the Convention while continuing to fight drug trafficking remains to be seen, as does the international community’s response to the situation.

Brazilian President to Open UN General Assembly Speeches

The president of Brazil will be the first woman ever to open the United Nations General Assembly debate among world leaders on Wednesday, September 21, at the world organization’s 66th session, Merco Press reported.

President Dilma Rousseff was the first woman elected as leader of South America’s largest country — and largest economy — last October, succeeding reformist President Lula da Silva.
“On the 21st, the President becomes the first woman since the foundation of the United Nations to address, with her speech, the opening of the General Assembly,” the Brazilian Foreign Affairs ministry said in the report.

Roussef began her almost week-long U.N. activities on Monday at a special summit on chronic diseases chaired by the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the report said. Bachelet is currently the first Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, which was established on 2 July 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly to work on gender equality and the empowerment of women at global, regional and country levels. More than 30 heads of state and government and at least 100 other senior ministers and experts were scheduled to attend the two-day high-level General Assembly meeting for a discussion of a draft declaration calling for a multi-pronged campaign by governments, industry and civil society to set up plans by 2012 to curb risk factors behind the four groups of non-communicable diseases — cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.

While efforts by Roussef and other world leaders to curb chronic non-communicable diseases progress, Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam Project – a massive hydroelectric project in the Amazon approved by Roussef’s administration in June — is drawing more concerns over potential adverse health effects, particularly on the indigenous peoples of the region, but also on the global climate. The dam will flood more than 120,000 acres of the Brazilian rainforest along the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon where members of the region’s 24 indigenous tribes live, destroying local settlements and displacing between 20,000 and 40,000 mostly indigenous people. The flooding will destroy a large swath of the Amazon rainforest. Rainforests are called “the lungs of the earth” for their ability to store carbon and battle climate change.

In a September 19 article on the Huffington Post, Philip M. Fearnside, a researcher with the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus, Brazil, indicated that the hydroelectric dam, which will be the world’s third largest, may release into the atmosphere significant quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2. The dam will create a massive reservoir with rotting plant matter along its bottom that will release the greenhouse gas, creating a “methane factory,” Fearnside explained to Deutsche Welle.

Last month, thousands of people demonstrated in 17 countries around the world, following protests in 15 Brazilian cities, to urge Roussef’s administration “to end its assault on the forests and the people of the Amazon,” according to Amazon Watch. The demonstrators called on the government to immediately halt the Belo Monte Dam, a $17 billion project that will divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu River along a 62-mile stretch.

“These protests solidify our calls to revoke the approval of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Once it is revoked, it will be possible to carry out public consultations to insure the rights of communities who are directly threatened,” said organizer Marco Antonio Morgado of the Brazilian Forests Movement, according to the report. Critics of the dam urged Dilma to use the money to invest in truly renewable energy from wind and solar along with improving energy efficiency, the report said.

Like the protests and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, the Belo Monte Dam protests were organized through social media on the Internet. “This is a new chapter in the struggle to defend the Amazon, and everyday more people are getting involved,” said Christian Poirier, Brazil Program Coordinator at Amazon Watch. “The Dilma Rousseff government is at crossroads. The world is calling on her to demonstrate courage and leadership and take immediate actions to safeguard the Amazon for future generations.”

Meanwhile, at the UN Rousseff with have a private meeting with UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday before opening the round of speeches at the 66th General Assembly, according to Merco Press. “The president is drafting a wide ranging and incisive speech in which she will defend social inclusion and human rights guarantees,” the independent news agency in Brazil said.

From Arab Spring Into Indian Summer?

Tellingly, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations yesterday, he made no mention of the this year’s uprisings in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring—and with good reason. The recent emergence of Arab Spring is clearly of historical significance to the Arab peoples who are so courageous in their bloody struggles against oppressive governments. But it also promises to be of importance for those committed to Tribal sovereignty.

Arab Spring—an ongoing movement composed of revolutions, uprisings, and protests in countries that include Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Libya (which is currently in the midst of a civil war)—can provide insight into a workable Tribal Nation self-determination, which itself is more than simple rhetoric about American Indian sovereignty. Tribal Nation self-determination, which originated in the early 1970s, is ultimately a political and social movement. And this movement can benefit from lessons learned in the ongoing Arab Spring.

Perhaps one of the most important of these lessons is cosmopolitanism, a concept the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes as shared responsibility for each other. This certainly is a Tribal ideal. And in acknowledging the existence of global citizens who must look out for the well-being of others (and for the earth, as recently articulated by Bolivian President Evo Morales), cosmopolitans realize that our integrated world depends upon the exchange of ideas about what is right and wrong, an exchange that must cross geopolitical borders.

Like Arab Spring, the success of American Indian self-determination is dependent not only on restructuring and rebuilding community with the goal of empowerment of the people, but it also is dependent upon developing international relationships and communications. These relationships ought to be oriented toward the political, cultural, and educational.

For example, the young people who mobilized in Egypt did not work in isolation, shut off from the international community. A few years before January 25, one of the best-known Egyptian groups devoted itself to the study and practice of nonviolence (itself an international philosophy, and one that is rather successful) while networking with individuals from successful movements such as Otpor, a 2004 Serbian student movement, and from the 2004 Ukrainian youth movement. In addition, the young Egyptians utilized what Professor Manuel Castells terms “informationalism”—in this case, using social media intelligently with the goal of spreading/gaining knowledge while increasing political development. The result was a revolution, one that of course will take years to unfold.

It is this type of international support and networking—the significant exchange of ideas and information—that will enhance the Tribal Nation self-determination movement. Of course, pockets of mutual support already exist as illustrated by the international Indigenous groups that worked on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous Environmental Network also works with others outside the geopolitical borders of Indian Country. The goal in this activity is to assist us in the international necessity for respectful coexistence.

Tribes and Tribal Nations, like the Arab world, are misunderstood by Westerners. This is due to a list of reasons we are all familiar with including false representations in the history books and stereotypes in the media and popular culture. For example, I am confident that if you watched director Jackie Salloum’s “Planet of the Arabs,” a short 2005 video showcasing the portrayal of Arabs in the Western media, you would immediately see the connections between how American Indians and Arab Peoples have been popularly misrepresented. In fact, Salloum’s critique is a perfect segue into Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s 2009 documentary Reel Injun.

But Arabs and American Indians have more in common than being routinely caricatured or savaged in mainstream films for mass consumption. We also share the experiences of living, at one time or another, under political tenures that have been more interested in undermining our communities (under the guise of “civilization” or “reorganization”) than in investing in an informed and engaged people who can be the basis for a participatory style of intelligent and community-based government. Arab Spring, like other events, promises to be of help in learning how to create such a style of governing through the supportive role of cosmopolitan communication.

A couple of years ago, I was approached by a CIA recruiter who had become familiar with my research on the Middle East. She told me that there existed a level of ignorance about Tribes and Tribalism in her agency, and so she invited me to consider giving lectures to a group of her colleagues on these topics. At one point in the conversation, the recruiter said that a central question asked by the agency—referring to overseas activities—was Why do Tribes undermine Western efforts? That question is ripe, full of assumptions and equipped with a specific lens for seeing. Or, rather, not-seeing. Tribalist that I am, I reframed the question by asking simply why coordinated efforts were still in play to undermine the right of Tribes to exist.

This gets us to back to the idea of the cosmopolitans, which understands that diversity is a political strength. It takes diverse strength to overthrow an oppressive and blood-thirsty government or to resist fort-type leadership that is based upon corruption and profits-before-people, a government in which nepotism and cronyism are supported instead of an engaged citizenry. In the case of American Indian self-determination, there exists the extra struggle of contending with anti-Tribalism. Anti-Tribalism is a form of extremism that insists upon erasing differences in our humanity, it is an extremism that refuses to recognize that Tribes do belong in a thriving international community.

Arab Spring, like the Self-Determination movement, through its belief in global conversations, offers us one possible pathway into a world which acknowledges both Tribal and Non-Tribal Peoples. Perhaps this movement will be called Indian Summer.

Julia Good Fox is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation (from the Kitkahahki band) and a direct descendant of Curly Chief who was born and raised in Oklahoma. She now resides in the Midwest and teaches in an Indigenous and American Indian Studies Program at a Tribal college. She is also a researcher, traveler, and writer.

Indigenous Leader Discusses Culture with UN

Click here to view the embedded video.

Ninawa Kaxinawá, (Hunikui) from Acre, Brazil, is an indigenous leader and spiritual leader for his people living between the borders of Brazil and Peru.

Kaxinawá was at the United Nations on September 30 to speak about the concerns of 12 indigenous nations, belonging to the Pano linguistic family—of which the Hunikui has the largest population.

In this video by Sommer Films, Kaxinawá discusses what has brought him to the U.N. which includes bringing awareness to his tribe and others who are trying to preserve their culture and show that they are very alive.

“These days we try to strengthen our culture, and to maintain our biodiversity, to keep it alive,” Kaxinawá says. “You all know that 512 years ago we lived a free life. And 511 years later, we suffer because of the contact with the main stream society. Today we are squeezed in small reservations, trying to live freely, like our ancestors did. But we feel that the land is to small and our population is growing.”

He continues to discuss how the way of life has changed in Brazil and the need to unite people as everything on our planet changes to fast.

Looking Ahead to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

In a little more than three months, thousands of Indigenous Peoples from across the world will converge on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Since 2002, the UNPFII has been the gathering place to advance the greater indigenous movement that’s spanned a 67-year legacy.

Inspired by a then-nascent human rights movement following the end of World War II, the indigenous crusade endured a long and steady climb, often times, in the face of great doubt. Even the earliest protests to pay heed to first peoples were ignored when in 1923, Cayuga Chief Deskaheh of the Iroquois Confederacy travelled to Geneva to plead for the cause of his people before the League of Nations. He would wait for an entire year before returning home, unheard.

Today, the estimated 370 million Indigenous Peoples representing approximately 90 countries are no longer a faceless, voiceless minority—rather, in the course of more than half a century, they have proved to international leaders and heads of state that the situation facing many indigenous men, women and children is of critical importance in the arena of human rights.

Earlier this month at the United Nations, an Expert Group Meeting of the UNPFII was held to confront mounting concern on violence against indigenous women. The magnitude of this problem involves places like Bangladesh where recent reports suggest sexual violence and even death are becoming chronic threats for the Jumma women living within the Chittihong Hill Tracts (CHT). There, an estimated 16 rapes occurred in 2011—five of them resulting in death. Four other Jumma women mysteriously went missing, according to a human rights report released in early January by the Oxfam-supported, Kapaeeng Foundation.

Meanwhile, a 2010 report conducted by the Native Women’s Association of Canada showed an estimated 580 Aboriginal women have disappeared or were murdered since the study began in 2005. Statistically, it puts First Nations women at 3.5 times greater risk to fall victim to violence than other women, and five times more likely to be killed.

A Canadian Member of Parliament, Rod Bruinooge, attended the three-day gathering at the U.N. in New York for the meeting and told the Vancouver Sun that there’s a “need to empower indigenous women.” A recent bill that passed the Senate and now heads to the House of Commons aims to do just that. The measure, in short, addresses the division of property of divorced First Nations couples. It seems today, under the Indian Act, First Nations women have no rights when it comes to dividing property between two formerly married spouses—things like cars, homes, and other assets. The bill passed the Senate just before the Christmas holiday and is soon to head to the House of Commons for review. It will be the fourth time the measure will be considered.

The laws are stacked against the Indigenous Peoples in most if not all of the countries they represent. Women aren’t the only ones confronted with government inequality. There are a host of major issues facing the world’s first people, including environmental concerns, dying languages, and mounting poverty.

This year’s theme for the 11th Session of the UNPFII is aptly titled, “The Doctrine of Discovery.” It’s fitting, because even in the 21st century, many of the laws that indigenous people live by are laws that were written under the auspices of Manifest Destiny; a code that seemingly gave moral legitimacy and legal standing in the conquest of indigenous cultures, all in the name of God.

This year’s UNPFII will be held May 7-18 in New York, New York, with hope to possibly deconstruct this “Doctorine of Discovery,” an outdated narrative, just as Steven Newcomb, an Indian Country Today Media Network columnist, has demonstrated in his provocative book, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum Publishing. 2008.)

Canada Blasted at U.N. for Treatment of Indigenous Peoples

A United Nations expert panel on human rights has blasted Canada for its treatment of the country’s Indigenous Peoples.

During hearings in Geneva on February 22, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) asked why Canada has not made progress in improving the disparities between First Nations communities and the rest of the country. In its last report on Canada, CERD found disparities in funding for education, housing, health and other social services for indigenous peoples, issues around violence against women and child abuse, equality before the law, and over-representation of indigenous peoples in prisons, among other things.

“This problem should not continue the same way as it has in the past,” said Noureddine Amir, CERD’s vice-chairman, Postmedia News reported. “How long will this be ongoing?”

CERD is the body of independent experts that monitors compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, one of the six major international human rights treaties. All U.N. members are obliged to submit regular reports to the committee on how they perceive they are implementing human rights. The committee also accepts “shadow reports” from indigenous nations, organizations and individuals that counter-balance the self-interested reports submitted by states.

In December, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya took Canada to task for allowing housing and other conditions in the community at Attawapiskat to deteriorate so badly that people’s lives were in danger.

The Chiefs of Ontario issued a statement on February 22 announcing that more than 20 Indigenous nations and organizations “are holding Canada accountable during the country’s periodic review.” The chiefs submitted an alternate, or “shadow” report to identify gaps, misrepresentations, and assumptions made in Canada’s official report.

“We value this opportunity for Indigenous Peoples to relay their stories directly to the world on how we are treated,” commented Regional Chief Angus Toulouse. “While we understand there are no explicit penalties for violations by the State, these reviews serve to increase awareness at the international level and within Canada. The observations and recommendations made within the Alternate report are by no means new. Indigenous nations and organizations have been raising awareness and advocating action on these priorities for years.”

The chiefs recommend that Canada “commit to honor the true spirit and intent existing in the Treaties, resolve matters of jurisdiction, realize Treaty implementation, and exercise the principles established in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These are the key vehicles for conducting and maintaining relationships with Indigenous Nations and addressing socio-economic challenges.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Asks Syrian Government to Allow Aid to Reach Those in Need

With the ongoing fighting and tensions going on in Syria, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on March 2 asked the Syrian government to allow aid for those in desperate need.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the U.N. emergency relief coordinator Miss Valerie Amos has not been able to travel to Syria despite repeated assurances. I once again urge the authorities to allow her to visit as soon as possible so that humanitarian relief workers can reach the many thousands of people who desperately need assistance,” Ki-moon said during a press conference. “…Ladies and Gentleman the Syrian Government has failed to deliver on its responsibility to protect its people. Civilian populations are under military assault in several cities. The disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities has driven what had been largely peaceful opposition forces to resort to take up arms in some cases. But let us be clear the opposition’s fire power appears to be minimal compared to the heavy weapons being used by the Syrian army.”

Watch a video of Ki-moon’s speech released by the BBC here.

Annual International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Is Today

“If a phantom has at some time traveled this earth, it is racism. I understand this as a phenomenon that is supported by the belief of superiority in the face of difference, in the belief that one’s own culture possesses values superior to those of other cultures. It has not been stated often enough that racism has historically been a banner to justify the enterprises of expansion, conquest, colonization and domination and has walked hand in hand with intolerance, injustice and violence.” – Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Guatemalan Indigenous Leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, at the Sixth Lascasianas Symposium in Mexico, 1996.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum’s eloquent words on the history and ongoing effects of racism resonant each year on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The United Nations’ General Assembly proclaimed March 21 as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966, six years after that day in 1960 when police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against that country’s apartheid ‘pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa. The ironically named “pass laws” forced black South Africa to carry identification documents at all times and prohibited black Africans to leave a bantustan without them.

Since 1966, South Africa’s apartheid systems have been dismantled and racist laws and practices have been rescinded both in South Africa and many other countries. The International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination has gone a long way toward highlighting – and banishing – racial discrimination in all its various expressions, but racism remains embedded in countries worldwide. Although the United States has ratified the Convention, it expressed reservations about its implementation: “The Constitution of the United States contains provisions for the protection of individual rights, such as the right of free speech, and nothing in the Convention shall be deemed to require or to authorize legislation or other action by the United States of America incompatible with the provisions of the Constitution of the United States of America.”

The theme of this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is “Racism and Conflict,” linking the fact that racism and discrimination are often tied to deadly conflict. “Racism and racial discrimination have been used as weapons to engender fear and hatred. In extreme cases, ruthless leaders instigate prejudice to incite genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message commemorating the day. “Racism undermines peace, security, justice and social progress. It is a violation of human rights that tears at individuals and rips apart the social fabric.”

In her statement marking the Day, Navi Pillay, the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited a survey showing that 55 percent of violent conflicts between 2007 and 2009 had violations of minority rights or ethnic tensions at their core. “The relationship between racism and conflict is a deep-rooted, well-established one,” she said.

One of the major barriers to eliminating racism is that the earliest warnings of prejudice and discord are so often ignored, and it is only when the later, more sinister signs begin to emerge that the State and the international community react.

“On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I call on States to heed the early warnings of prejudice, stereotypes, ignorance and xenophobia. I call on them to address, urgently, the marginalization and exclusion of individuals belonging to certain communities from political and economic decision-making. I call for a process of consultation and constant dialogue with all sectors of society, a redoubling of efforts to ensure that access to jobs, to land, to political and economic rights is not contingent on one’s color, ethnic, national or racial background, and that development projects do not disproportionately disadvantage a particular community,” Pillay said. She said these are not new obligations on the part of states, but are longstanding universally agreed human rights commitments.