57th Plenary Meeting - General Assembly 75th Session

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19-Mar-2021 01:56:58
While apartheid ‘lies dead, racism lives on’, says United Nations Chief, as General Assembly observes Day for Eliminating Racial Discrimination.

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Noting with concern the situation regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID‑19) pandemic, the General Assembly adopted a decision today outlining protocols for delivering statements and presenting reports during plenary meetings in the remainder of its seventy-fifth session.

Without setting a precedent for future plenary meetings, the Assembly decided that where quarantine requirements or travel restrictions are in place, those invited to speak at a plenary meeting or present a report — and who are not a representative of a Member State or an observer delegation — may each submit a pre-recorded statement, which will be played in the General Assembly Hall.

It also decided that, in addition to the verbatim records of plenary meetings, the Assembly President will circulate a compilation document of statements delivered by means of pre-recorded statements at each of the formal plenary meetings, which will be attached to the verbatim records of the meeting.

The action was taken ahead of the Assembly’s commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed annually on the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.

In opening remarks, Volkan Bozkır (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, recalled that the International Day was created in 1966 — and that 55 years later, racial discrimination continues to exist. The past year has been a painful one for many people of African descent. Xenophobic and anti-Asian attacks and hate speech have also increased during the COVID-19 crisis, despite the Assembly’s affirmation in resolution 74/270 that “there is no place for any form of discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic”.

Noting that people of African descent often have unequal access to medical care and are vulnerable to higher rates of coronavirus infection and related mortality, he said that in some cases, they are also twice as likely to die as a result of COVID-19 than their peers. For those who recover, the cost of health care threatens to push them into poverty. And when related justice, housing and education systems fail people of African descent, the inequalities are perpetuated.

Recalling that 2021 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme for Action — adopted at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance — and also draws attention to the midterm review of the International Decade for People of African Descent, to be held in May, he said consultations will begin on the modalities, format and substantive procedural aspects of a permanent forum on people of African descent. He trusted that these deliberations would conclude soon to establish a platform for negotiating a draft United Nations declaration on the fundamental rights of people of African descent. “The onus is upon each of us, to uphold the fundamental human rights of everyone, everywhere,” he said. “Black Lives Matter.”

Secretary-General António Guterres likewise recalled the events in 1960 in Sharpeville, acknowledging that while apartheid “lies dead”, racism “lives on” today in all regions and societies. It is seen in the pervasive exclusion of people of African descent, endured by indigenous peoples, expressed in the repugnant views of white supremacists, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim sentiment, and in the abhorrent violence against Asians wrongly blamed for the introduction of COVID-19. It is also seen in the coding behind facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence.

“Our responsibility as global citizens is to eradicate it”, he affirmed, and to condemn it without qualification, including by “looking into our own hearts and minds” to ask if we are racist and what we must do to correct it. For its part, the United Nations in 2020 launched a system-wide discussion, engaging staff on issues including conscious and unconscious bias. “This is a responsibility we all share. It is a problem all of society must confront,” he insisted.

He stressed that the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action offers an opportunity to make an honest assessment of “where we stand and where we need to go.” It is time to acknowledge and repair longstanding wrongs — and to reverse their consequences. “We need greater political, cultural and economic investment in inclusivity and cohesion,” he asserted. He appealed to young people, leaders and educators in particular to help teach the world that all people are born equal.

“Racism violates everything we stand for and everything we do”, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a pre-recorded statement. The massive toll of COVID-19 on people of African descent, ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups was powered by decades of unequal health care and inadequate living conditions. “Generation upon generation of deprivation, discrimination and injustice shaped the fractures that the pandemic revealed, exploited and amplified,” she stressed. “And all of us have a responsibility to help mend [them].”

She said that the 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis triggered the Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution in June 2020 mandating her Office to prepare a report on systemic racism. Despite the heightened visibility around this issue — and many police reform initiatives and commissions — use of force violations and racial discrimination by law enforcement officials against people of African descent continue to occur. “This must stop”, she said. Those responsible for violations must be held to account, and measures of redress must be extended to victims and their families. She encouraged States need to “dig beneath the surface” to uncover the depth of discriminatory practices.

Uzodinma Iweala, author and Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Center, said that as an African, Nigerian and American man, it is painful to remember the 69 lives taken by police during the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. “For me, the most solemn aspect of commemorating this day […] is that [photographer] Ian Berry’s images capturing the tragedy of events on 21 March 1960 could easily be ones from around the world in 2020,” he said.

Over the past 10 years, and rising to a fever pitch in 2020, millions of people of all ethnicities, races, genders and ages took to streets around the world to proclaim that “Black Life and Black Lives Matter”, he said. And as they took those pleas to people sworn to protect them, they were violently attacked. The roots of racism cannot be fully acknowledged without understanding the ways in which police historically — and continuously — interact with people who are Black and Brown.

With inequitable treatment meted out to people of different races under the law, the alignment is to an idea — often unspoken but consistently expressed — that somehow, “the colour of your skin subjects you to inhumane treatment by a system within which you live”, he said. “If we do not act, racism will kill us all.”

To be sure, he said no act of fighting racism is too small. It happens in living rooms, coffee shops, workplaces and places of worship. It must also happen in the General Assembly Hall and throughout the United Nations. “Each one of us — every day, and every moment — we are confronted with the realities of speaking out against racism, standing with each other against hate, and living examples of love,” he said.

In other business, the Assembly elected the Philippines as a member of the Committee for Programme and Coordination, for a term of office beginning on 19 March 2021 and expiring on 31 December 2022. It also appointed Eileen Cronin (United States) and Carolina María Fernández Opazo (Mexico) to the Joint Inspection Unit for a five-year term, beginning on 1 January 2022 and expiring on 31 December 2026.

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