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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:

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.