< Viewpoints < 2009

Racism: Europeans ought to be more self-critical and remain open to thorough and frank UN discussions

[14/04/09] Europe is not a racism-free zone. An intensified struggle against xenophobia and intolerance is acutely needed in most European countries. Hate crimes must be stopped and action taken against discrimination in employment, education, housing, sport and other social contexts. All this requires an honest recognition of the problems and political will to plan and enforce effective counter measures. A self-critical attitude would be the most convincing European contribution towards the efforts of the United Nations to  develop a global strategy against racism.

During my visits to European countries, I have met people who are victims of racist acts,  xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. Among them are the Roma, Sinti and Travellers, Africans or persons of African descent, members of Jewish communities, members of Muslim communities, national, ethnic or religious minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking in human beings.

Many of these persons are actually victims of multiple forms of discrimination because of their race, descent, national or ethnic origin, sex, gender, religion or belief, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or other grounds. All the underlying causes need to be identified and addressed in order to improve their situation.

In some countries, political parties with xenophobic agendas have gained popular support and in some cases even won elections. With the worsening global economic crisis this trend is likely to continue, unless strong political action is taken to ensure the equal worth and dignity of every human being.  

Many European countries have adopted comprehensive legal frameworks and national action plans. However, studies show that the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation remains uneven and that sanctions are often not applied effectively. The existing equality bodies need strong independent mandates and the necessary resources to combat discrimination successfully.

The EU Commission has recently proposed a new directive which would ensure that there is protection against discrimination on most grounds. It addresses the anomaly that there is now unequal legal protection against discrimination offered to different groups.

The European Convention on Human Rights bans discrimination in the application of the rights specified in the Convention “on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status” (Article 14).

An additional protocol (Protocol 12) goes further and stipulates a general prohibition of discrimination. I recommend all member states of the Council of Europe to ratify that protocol as well.  

There are also important standards to prevent racism in electronic media. The additional Protocol to the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime outlaws acts of a xenophobic nature committed through computer systems and the internet. The European Union has adopted legislation banning the diffusion of hate speech through TV channels, and most recently, the EU countries agreed on common legislative standards to criminalise certain racist and xenophobic behaviour across the Union.

Each country needs to adopt a comprehensive and coherent strategy against racism, xenophobia and discrimination. The national action plans should identify the groups which are particularly vulnerable or disadvantaged and apply positive measures in their regard.

The process of preparing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating such action plans should be inclusive and involve all stakeholders, including the victims and representatives of civil society. The plans should be based on solid facts, preferably in the form of a baseline study. Disaggregated data are key in any serious attempt to redress the situation of the victims. Plans should also serve to establish indicators or benchmarks against which progress can be measured.

In many countries, there is a deficit of information regarding patterns of discrimination and hate crimes. This must now improve. Collection of sensitive data, however, should be coupled with proper safeguards and prevent the identification of individuals belonging to a particular group.

In sum, the national strategy should include the following points:

  • National and local action plans should be prepared and implemented and systems for data collection set up, including methods to analyse the frequency and type of abuse.
  • States should enact robust and comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation which covers all relevant grounds of discrimination as well as multiple and compound forms of discrimination. Non-discrimination legislation should be applicable in all major areas of activity and be accompanied by penal provisions against incitement to hatred and other hate crimes.
  • All groups at risk of discrimination should be equally protected, any “hierarchy” among the individual victims based on the ground of discrimination should be avoided. Proportionate application of positive measures should be authorized in favor of those groups of people who do not yet fully enjoy their human rights due to past discrimination.
  • Independent and effective equality bodies should be set up to receive complaints and monitor the implementation of the legislation. The available sanctions and compensation provided for by non-discrimination legislation should be effective and dissuasive towards potential perpetrators.
  • Recommendations by Council of Europe mechanisms such as the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance; European Union institutions such as the Fundamental Rights Agency; and the UN treaty bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination should be carefully analysed when preparing the plans.
  • Human rights education should be made widely available to promote the values of tolerance and respect for others. School children, youth and government officials must be educated to counter racist, discriminatory or xenophobic tendencies and have effective knowledge which promotes tolerance and respect for others who are different.
  • Human rights training should be a mandatory and regular activity for professionals who have duties in the implementation of human rights.
  • Awareness of human rights among the general public should be promoted with a focus on how to access different remedies. European campaigns such as “All different - all equal” and “Speak-out against discrimination” can help to raise awareness of racism, xenophobia and discrimination and ways to tackle them. Popular role models speaking up and a vibrant civil society and the media can also actively contribute to counter racism and xenophobia.
  • Early warning mechanisms should be developed. Important actors in this respect are national human rights monitoring bodies, civil society and non-governmental organizations.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has proposed that a Universal Observatory on Racism be set up which will receive information from states, human rights treaty bodies, national human rights institutions, victims’ groups, other international or regional organisations and non-governmental organisations. It will collect statistics, legislation, policies, programmes and best practices, and carry out analytical work to discern patterns and trends world-wide. This initiative deserves our support and is one of the proposals that might be discussed at a UN conference on racism in Geneva from 20-24 April.

The purpose of that meeting is to review the implementation of the United Nations Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) which resulted from a world conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. These two documents represent ambitious and comprehensive road maps to fight racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance for the international community.

The preparatory process for this review meeting has been difficult and extremely politicized. My appeal to all governments is to be constructive and not abstain from this crucial global exchange about what remains to be done to implement further and more effective measures to fight racism and intolerance.

Thomas Hammarberg


Contribution by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights to the Durban Review Conference (20-24 April 2009)

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