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Joseph Voyame, the Swiss member of ECRI and Chair of the working group which drafted the Recommendation

Combating racism: recommendations concerning the law for all offences

Question: What are the main points of this new Recommendation on combating racism?

J. Voyame: The first key feature is that in addition to race, colour and national and ethnic origin, it includes nationality, language and religion among the grounds on which discrimination is prohibited. Secondly, its scope is wide: it covers virtually all areas of life in society, for example employment, education, housing, health and social protection. The prohibition of discrimination applies to all public authorities, including the police, border control officials, the army and prison personnel. Moreover, the Recommendation advocates that public authorities be obliged to take active steps to promote equality and prevent discrimination in carrying out their functions. This is important, for we must not forget that, although racism and discrimination must obviously be punished when they occur, it’s just as important to address prevention, and therefore to promote equality and increase awareness.

Question: Does the Recommendation go further than the European Directives which the 15 EU member states must implement by the end of 2003?

J. Voyame: The Recommendation goes further in a way, first because it’s addressed to all the Council of Europe member states, and therefore to 44 governments and not only 15, or indeed 25. In drafting its Recommendation, ECRI naturally took account of the two EU Directives in this field, but these deal mainly with the question of discrimination, that is, with differential treatment. The ECRI Recommendation tackles not only discrimination but also other legal aspects of measures to combat racism. For instance, it covers the public expression of racism and incitement to racism, racist organisations and racially-motivated offences. Furthermore, ECRI’s Recommendation covers all branches of the law: constitutional, criminal, civil and administrative law.

Question: ECRI regularly deplores the fact that the laws that already exist in many countries are not properly applied. Was there any point in making legislation even more stringent when we know that it’s so ineffectively applied?

J. Voyame: It’s not a question of making legislation more stringent, but of amplifying it. The ECRI Recommendation sets out a whole range of elements that need to be covered to ensure that national legislation to combat racism and racial discrimination is as comprehensive as possible. A number of these elements are in fact already included in the legislation in most member states. The ECRI Recommendation is a reference text, which sets out all that needs to be done if we want to go as far as possible and be truly effective. As for the problem of implementation, it’s true that it’s not enough to have rules on paper, and that they must be enforced.

That’s why it’s important that each member state should set up a specialised body to combat racism. The ECRI Recommendation deals with this question and stresses the need to ensure that such a body is independent and to give it wide-ranging powers and responsibilities, including the power to carry out investigations, monitor legislation, assist victims and make recommendations, for instance in the education field. Another point connected with implementation is that ECRI itself, as an independent European monitoring body, has a watchdog role in this respect, by virtue of its on-the-spot visits and its country reports, which review the situation in each of the Council of Europe member states.

Question: Why does ECRI concentrate solely on legal measures in the Recommendation?

J. Voyame: In the introduction we make it clear that recommendations concerning the law alone are not sufficient, but they are of course necessary. This is the aspect that we have chosen to cover. The Recommendation is the seventh in a series that includes Recommendations concerning policies to be implemented in various fields. There’s also a whole section of our work programme that is concerned with relations with civil society and information and awareness-raising activities. In short, we at ECRI are perfectly aware that the law alone is not sufficient to eliminate racism and racial discrimination, but we’re equally convinced that racism and racial discrimination cannot be combated without the law.