European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)


EUROCONF (2000) 9


General Report - Mr Alvaro GIL ROBLES, Commissioner for Human Rights

16 October 2000

General Report – Download the document

I. Context
II. Solutions – examples of good practice

Ladies and gentlemen,


A little less than three days ago, when the Secretary General of the Council of Europe welcomed us to this meeting, he quite rightly pointed out that the walls of our common home, which is that of the Greater Europe and the protection of human rights, were originally built to house a great humanist project, namely the construction of a tolerant and democratic European society based on respect for the equal dignity of human beings. Our Conference has been the mirror of this project and it is this prevailing atmosphere that I would like to stress above all here.

The richness of your debates was a clear sign that diversity has something inherently creative about it. This has been the opportunity for Europe to prepare its contribution to the future World Conference against Racism on the basis of its different experiences, which have been regarded not as a burden but as a major asset. Coming from various backgrounds, representing governments, non-governmental organisations, and national institutions for the protection of human rights, you have shown how constructive and positive pluralism, critical-mindedness and debate can be.

I. Context 

First point: Acts of racism and racial discrimination are human rights violations. By reminding us that lack of understanding and contempt for human rights have led to acts of barbarism which outrage the human conscience, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on us to respect the equal dignity of all human beings. In its first article it states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. In point of fact, racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance pose a mortal danger to human rights. And it is indeed the fundamental rights of victims that are violated. It should also be emphasised that, for the most part, victims undergo double or multiple forms of discrimination.

Second point: The persistence of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance throughout Europe. These problems endure and expand, taking on various forms. They currently range from the monstrous concept of “ethnic cleansing”, and crimes of mass extermination, nothing less than modern-day genocide, to the day-to-day, direct and indirect discrimination which is still the lot of many women and men in Europe, including countries which are proud to call themselves advanced democracies.

Third point: There are areas which are particularly conducive to manifestations of racism and racial discrimination, which might be termed the “grey areas” in the functioning of our democracies. The following are examples:

    - The discrepancy between law and practice (between legal instruments and the real-life situation): the failure to apply existing rules against racism and the poor implementation thereof are a constant problem.

    - The lack of access to the law: there has been talk of an “unjust justice system”, minorities have a genuine lack of confidence in the functioning of the justice system, which they may perceive as insensitive and inaccessible, and the unique position of the victim in cases of racism is not sufficiently taken into account.

    - There is still a latent, creeping racism in too many public institutions and the way they function. In this context, problems linked to the attitudes of civil servants, law enforcement and prison officers and the police in general should be treated much more seriously than is presently the case in our countries. It is undoubtedly important to punish such attitudes and forms of behaviour but training is equally necessary. It is essential that these officials be trained to observe human rights and to respect difference, so that they may become, to some extent, effective “human rights protection agents”.

    - The use of racist and xenophobic arguments in political debate is a scourge that contributes significantly to a climate of hostility in our societies. The rise of extremism poses a real threat. Even more serious is the fact that this situation meets with indifference and even a certain acceptance, whether in the form of unacceptable political deals or the straightforward incorporation of xenophobic arguments into the positions adopted by democratic political parties. It goes without saying that all this is entirely at odds with the conception of society that we defend: a society based on the principles of justice and solidarity. The opinion leaders concerned are playing a very dangerous game because, by seeking out and pinpointing scapegoats, they fuel hatred of difference and put foreigners, immigrants and refugees in an even more vulnerable position. In some of our countries, political extremism is currently contributing to a resurgence of nationalism that results in exclusion.

    - This form of political argument is also rooted in underlying antisemitism: there are those who use antisemitic prejudice, whether implicitly or openly, to further their political interests. We are all aware of the destructive effect of antisemitism on democracy. We cannot divorce the fight against antisemitism from the fight against all forms of racism, for it is one and the same struggle.

    - Religious discrimination is a factor not properly or fully taken into account in the formulation of policies and strategies in the member States. Here, I should like to add a point too often forgotten – that religion should unite us, not divide us. Ultimately, religion can also help to protect human rights. It should not be a source of confrontation.

    - The rising incidence of xenophobic behaviour, discrimination, expressions of racism (including racist violence) and widespread intolerance of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is certainly a matter of urgent concern. Already in 1993, when the Council of Europe’s first Declaration on Combating Racism, Xenophobia, Antisemitism and Intolerance was adopted in Vienna, the Heads of State and Government expressed alarm at the increase in acts of violence, instances of degrading treatment and discriminatory practice towards migrants and members of immigrant communities. Seven years on, it has to be acknowledged that far from showing an improvement, the picture is bleaker.

      I should like to recall here the point made by Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her admirable opening address, about a “Fortress Europe”. Personally, I am convinced that the fortress mentality is not only intolerable but also non-viable in the medium and long term: it is an absurdity demographically, economically and otherwise. The human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are of key importance in our fight against racism and xenophobia. The economic exploitation of migrants, especially undocumented persons, is unacceptable. Families have a basic right to be reunited: this is a matter of respect for human dignity. The point has to be made loudly and clearly that immigration is not a problem; it is the phenomenon of groups of people moving to our countries and helping to enrich them. These people help to create and consolidate our countries’ wealth. That fact has to be acknowledged in the interests of justice, respect and solidarity.

      Indeed, the Forum of Non-Governmental Organisations, held immediately before the Conference, decided to include a fifth theme on its agenda, in addition to the four conference themes: namely, immigration and asylum. The fight here is for equal rights, above all economic and social rights. It is also about moving toward successful integration involving civil and political rights, including the right of non-nationals resident in a country (whatever their nationality) to vote in local elections.

    - Lastly, a group particularly exposed to racism throughout Europe is the Roma/Gypsies. Their fundamental rights are currently violated or threatened on a regular basis. They are the victims of persistent prejudice and sometimes the target of racist violence. Our duty of memory in Europe also gives us a duty to be vigilant: we must not forget that, in our recent past, many Roma/Gypsies have perished as the result of policies of racist persecution and extermination. Historically there has been systematic discrimination against Roma/Gypsies, and discrimination against them today in many social and economic contexts is driving them into social exclusion. Access to education is vitally important here: it is the key in the Roma/Gypsies’ progress towards equality.

II. Solutions – examples of good practice 

So what can be done to address the picture I have painted? What are the possible or existing solutions? What types of good practice should be supported and developed?

The conference working groups discussed these questions and came up with ideas, examples and proposals. The rapporteurs outlined these to you yesterday and you will find them in the written reports, already available, which will form an integral part of the European regional contribution to the World Conference. I will highlight here only some of the many points made.

First and foremost I want to underline the importance of prevention. I subscribe to the school that prefers prevention to punishment (although, of course, there must also be provision for sanctions to be imposed).

The first point to be made about prevention concerns rules and, in particular, legal and political guarantees. The Conference unequivocally welcomed the latest advances in European law in this respect. The adoption of Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights and the recent Community Directive on equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin are positive steps. Slowly but surely, Europe is completing the armoury of legal instruments needed to prohibit racial discrimination. Its efforts are, of course, complementary to the worldwide protection machinery. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination remains the cornerstone at international level.

Completing anti-discrimination legislation at national level remains a priority. It is incredible – but true – that in the year 2000 not all European countries possess such legislation.

No matter what laws are passed, nothing will change until the law is properly applied and fully enforced. Genuine political will is also required at national and supra-national level to turn the letter of the law into a reality that is part of everyone’s experience. An example of very good practice that might usefully be followed is the establishment of specialised bodies to combat racism and intolerance at national level. Whether they take the form of a commission, an ombudsman’s office or a specialist centre, and whether they focus on racism or form part of larger bodies with a brief to promote and protect human rights, such mechanisms are essential complements to the law and contribute to its implementation.

A final comment on this point: whatever anti-discrimination laws are passed and whatever measures are taken to combat racism, certain negative trends will never be reversed until positive steps are taken to improve the situation of those women and men affected by racial discrimination and/or multiple discrimination.

Particularly important here are: the development and exchange of good practice with regard to combating discrimination in employment and housing; the role of the social partners; and the effective involvement of employers and trade unions in addressing workplace discrimination.

Prevention also works through education. Education for human rights should occupy a much more important place in our education systems. Instead of being treated as a separate minor subject, it should be present right across the curriculum, injecting a human rights component into the teaching of every subject. What society needs is a “human rights culture”. Intercultural education, a more thoughtful approach to history teaching and an effort to make schools places of education against racism are all aspects to be studied and reinforced.

Nothing will be accomplished without the involvement of civil society. For that reason, strengthening civil society and supporting the work of non-governmental organisations are basic steps in the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

We heard yesterday that the media play a crucial role in identity building. It is true that they are an integral part of our lives. As such, they are often criticised for certain negative aspects of their operating methods but the media can also make a substantial positive contribution to tackling racism. They are often fundamentally important tools in anti-racist work. New technologies, and particularly the Internet, are powerful forces for cultural rapprochement and thus help combat racism. The Internet and other media can also play a negative role, however, when they are used to disseminate racism and hatred. In such cases, we must react and protect ourselves. It is true that there are currently loopholes in the law because technology advances faster than lawyers can deliberate. Given that the problem has to be resolved at global level, we must hope that it is not overlooked at the forthcoming World Conference.

I should like to conclude by emphasising how impressed I have been by the depth of the will, at European and international level, to combat racism, racial discrimination, antisemitism, xenophobia and related intolerance. Indeed, I wonder whether, on occasion, advances in awareness, law and practice at national and local level are not stimulated “from the top down”. That will has been palpable over the last few days. In recent years it has also brought some important projects to fruition and been responsible for practical achievements including such successful initiatives as the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, whose work we appreciate.

Finally, I should like to pay tribute to our own European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) for its remarkable work, and urge it to demonstrate that it has the strength of spirit, the will and the determination to go on fighting for justice and equality among all human beings.

In a year’s time, the World Conference against racism will be taking place. Our message will not be one of self-satisfaction, but one which recognises our problems. Nor will it be a message of resignation, but one instead of determination to combat racism, racial discrimination, antisemitism, xenophobia and related intolerance.