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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 231
March 25, 2006

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International Day of Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

March 21st was the International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and all UN member-states were to observe this Day as one of their commitments in process of the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,1965 (commonly known as CERD). The General Assembly adopted the Convention by its resolution 2106 A (XX) of 21 December, 1965.

What is racial discrimination?
Racial discrimination means simply discrimination on the grounds of race. Race means a group of people of common ancestry, distinguished from others by physical characteristics such as hair type, colour of skin, and eyes, and stature. Anthropologists say there are main three races in the world: (a) Caucasoid, (b) Mongoloid and (c) Negroid.

The 1965 International Convention for All Forms of Racial Discrimination defines racial discrimination as follows:

“In this Convention, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Some experts say that racial discrimination is in essence an attitudinal discrimination in the mind of a person, harbouring racial prejudice towards a person of another race. No country can avoid racist attitude and racial discrimination exists in some form or another in all countries.

At a philosophical level, there are two conceptions of racial discrimination. According to the first of these, no distinction could be drawn between the forms and the manifestations of racial discrimination, all of which could be traced back to historical movements. The causes of racial discrimination which were not distinguished from its forms, were thought to lie in the structure of the society.

According to the second conception, racial discrimination presents a complex problem to be handled in the same way as other social problems with which governments are confronted. They want their definition to grasp the single underlying cause of discrimination that produces the observable kinds of behaviour. This cause may have psychological, socio-economic and ideological components.

Racial discrimination took the worst form in Apartheid South Africa before 1990 ( Nelson Mandela was released on 27 February, 1990).Since 1940s, South African racist governments adopted laws discriminating blacks from whites. The blacks could not live together with the whites. Various laws prescribed use of public amenities available to different race groups and prohibited inter-racial marriage.

UN action
The preamble of the UN Charter states among others:
“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 establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.”

The main source of authority for international action against all forms of discrimination is to be found in the Charter, which declares in Article 55 that the UN shall promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. In Article 56, member-states pledge themselves to take joint and separate action for the achievement of those purposes.

Since 1948, the UN has been promoting and codifying human rights, with a common standard of achievement for all people and nations. Over a period of time, the concept of human rights has continuously expanded, from first-generation notion of political and civil rights to a range of economic, social, and cultural rights, rights to development and right of indigenous people.

One of the important guiding concerns of this human right relates to the “principle of non-discrimination.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other human rights instruments specifically refer to this principle.

The 1965 UN Convention is a major achievement, the greater because it was adopted on a unanimous vote.

The Convention consists of three parts. Part 1 specifies the substantive obligations of state parties. In Article “racial discrimination” is defined. This part also includes a list of steps what states parties have to do to eliminate racial discrimination. Part II lays down provisions for international scrutiny and review of the way states fulfil their obligations. Part III governs such matters such as ratification, settlement of disputes and revision.

The 1965 Convention transformed the political scene in South Africa. The Convention makes it loud and clear that there is no room for racial discrimination between persons who differ in respect of race. Racial discrimination is contrary to international law.

Furthermore the UNESCO's Declaration in 1978 on Race and Racial Prejudice declares among others that:

“ All human being belong to a single species… all individuals and groups have the right to be different… any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior… has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity… any form of racial discrimination practised by a State constitutes a violation of international law.”

All forms of racial discrimination have been prohibited by all UN human rights instruments. All international human rights instruments require states' to adopt domestic laws to provide adequate remedy for those whose rights have been violated. It is only when states' own internal protective systems falter or where, in extreme cases, they are non-existent, that international mechanisms operate to reinforce domestic protection of human rights and to provide redress when the domestic system fails or is found wanting.

The author is former Bangladesh ambassador to the UN, Geneva.


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