The long road to Durban: the United Nations role in fighting racism and racial discrimination.

Author:Jackson, Peter
Position:Racial discrimination in South Africa

From its inception in 1945, the United Nations has led an unrelenting fight against racism and racial discrimination. The framework for the Organization's work in that area was the declaration in the preamble to its Charter on the question of human rights: "We the peoples of the United Nations determined ... to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and ... to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours."

Hardly had the ink dried on the Charter when the United Nations was called upon to live up to that declared intent by having to address the issue of racism, one of the first human rights questions to be dealt with by the world body.

On 22 June 1946, almost a year after the signing of the Charter and nine months after its coming into force, India drew the UN General Assembly's attention to the treatment of the people of Indian origin in South Africa and requested that the subject be placed on the Assembly's agenda of its first session. South Africa strongly objected to that request, asserting that under Article 2 of the UN Charter the matter was a purely domestic one, but the Assembly voted to retain the item.

On 7 December 1946, the debate on the Indian complaint began. In resolution 44 (I), its first on the subject, the Assembly affirmed that the treatment of Indians in South Africa should be in conformity with the UN Charter. However, in 1947, it failed to adopt any resolution on the matter for lack of a two-thirds majority, forcing India in 1948 to again request that the matter be brought before the Assembly. From that time and for the next 43 years, until 23 June 1994 when the item was removed from its agenda, the Assembly considered the matter annually, expanding it on 17 October 1952 to the study of the whole question of apartheid in South Africa. In December 1948, it gave substance to the declaration on human rights in the preamble to the Charter by adopting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a clear statement of common standards of behaviour for the entire world, in which it recognized that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". The Declaration, as well as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also adopted in December, opened the conscience of people worldwide to the need to work for the respect of those rights and freedoms. In March 1948, the UN Economic and Social Council had asked the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to collect and disseminate data concerning racial questions throughout the world and to prepare an educational campaign based on the information gathered.

Although the situation in South Africa was the catalyst for consideration of the issue of racism by the General Assembly and would dominate that debate for decades, it was not the only race-related issue to come before the world body. At its third session...

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