Racism is a human rights violation; global action is needed

Racism, in all of its forms, is under-acknowledged human rights problem of our day. Though variously defined, racism threatens the lives and rights of millions of people around the world. If you’re not outraged by the prevalence of racism in today’s world, consider the depth of its harms. Racism is an inhuman behaviour and morally egregious. 

Despite outlawing racial discrimination through various international instruments, it continues increasingly to be manifested in different countries, especially in the West. And in most cases, it goes unchecked. Individual acts of racism are commonplace.


In fact, the prohibition of racial discrimination is enshrined in all core international human rights instruments, placing obligations on States and tasking them with eradicating discrimination in the public and private spheres. In 2001, the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance produced the most authoritative and comprehensive programme for combating these scourges: the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.


Despite the harm of racism to human dignity, its elimination remains an unrealized promise of universal human rights. This Article critically sheds light on that.


Take, for example, FIFA, world football’s governing body is committed to doubling its minimum ban for racist incidents and will start inviting players to make victim statements at disciplinary hearings. Recently, for example, we saw racist abuse on social media against Manchester United footballer Paul Pogba following his own penalty being saved in a match against Wolves. Again, his teammate Marcus Rashford was subject to racist abuse on Twitter after he missed a penalty during the club’s narrow defeat against Crystal Palace.

During his footballing era, Samuel Eto’o, formerly Barcelona’s Cameroon striker, was a victim of constant incidents of racist abuse. At some point, he threatened to leave the field in protest at racist abuse during his side’s 2-0 victory over Real Zaragoza. The incident occurred 76 minutes into that match when Barcelona won a corner. Eto’o, who had been subjected to sporadic abuse by a small section of the crowd throughout the match, went to collect the ball and bottles thrown at him before a chorus of monkey chants went up. 

These few examples reflect the prevalence of racism; as a reality rather than a theory. Inasmuch as FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), as well as EU national league associations/organizations, have put in place rules, among others, to prevent and punish racist remarks made against footballers, it remains elusive. These incidents and more have been directed against ‘Black footballers’, of course, with African descent. This depicts a global issue and requires a global response. Racism harms know no national boundaries. 

Again to Africans particularly, UN General Assembly’s documents reported on ‘Afrophobia’ and pervasiveness of racism and recommended actions states should take. Then, Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France, Chair of the Working Group on People of African Descent, rightly stated that “people of African descent have been historically and continue to be victims of ‘Afrophobia’.

Of recent, for example, President Trump said the four Democrats should “go back” to “the crime-infested places from which they came.” Three of the lawmakers were born in the United States, and the fourth is a U.S. citizen born in Somalia. In his Twitter, President Trump also said “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.

Despite the prevalence of racism, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) imposes obligations on its member states to eliminate racial discrimination and promote understanding among all races. Clearly, international law establishes that States owe certain obligations to prevent and punish racial discrimination, namely establishing legal mechanisms to investigate and adjudicate alleged perpetrators at the domestic and international level. 

But, at present, there’re no legal pathways to allow for its prosecution and punishment as an international crime. In compliance with the fundamental obligations laid down in Article 2 of the ICERD, States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment human rights in general. 

Admittedly, international law provides few tools for regulating the private behaviour of a nation’s citizens. Nevertheless, States have inherent obligations to prevent and punish any violations of human rights, including racism. Here, States need to employ the full rigours of law for change as one of the best tools for mitigating the problem of individual racism. 

Besides, naming racism as a violation of human rights under international would offer to bother legal and symbolic protection to those threatened by racism around the world. It would increase normative pressure on agencies, public and private, to pursue real solutions and on individuals to recognise the role in perpetuating racism.

Naming is a powerful tool that international law has employed to raise awareness of prior harms and increase international political will to address racism.

Racism must be treated like pernicious computer-virus to be prohibited by international law. 

The writer is a law expert.

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