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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009) | Event: Racism and Public Policy Conference


Racism and Public Policy Conference

  • Date: 3 - 5 Sep 2001
  • Location: Durban, South Africa
  • Speakers: Alexandra Pero, Amina Mama, Angela King, Antonio Guimaraes, Benjamin Bowling, Bernard Magubane, Boo Teik Khoo, Diego Iturralde, Frene Ginwala, George Fredrickson, Glenn Loury, Guy Mhone, Hajo Funke, Hans-Georg Betz, Jane Bennett, Jeroen Doomernik, Jomo Sundaram, Kum Kum Bhavnani, Kwesi Prah, Lee Swepston, Lily Rahim, Manning Marable, Marcia Langton, Marisol de la Cadena, Mark Suzman, Mary Robinson, Neville Alexander, Njabulo Ndebele, Peter Schatzer, Pierre Sané, Ralph Premdas, Ray Jureidini, Renosi Mokate, Robert Bullard, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Sam Moyo, Sheldon Danziger, Thandika Mkandawire, Tom Lodge, Tracey Mcintosh, Vernellia Randall, Vijay Prashad
  • Project Title: Racism and Public Policy

Opening Remarks by High Commissioner for Human Rights


Mary Robinson

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to be present today for the opening of this conference on Racism and Public Policy organised by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Allow me first of all to express my thanks to Thandika Mkandawire, the Director of UNRISD, and to all your colleagues for bringing together such an impressive group of social scientists, historians and legal scholars from around the world to address the key role of public policies in achieving the breakthrough we are working to achieve here in Durban.

The presentations of your research findings and the discussions you have planned over the next three days constitute an important contribution to the World Conference against Racism. I believe the sensitive issues we are addressing in this Conference can benefit enormously from initiatives such as yours that provide neutral, research-based fora for discussion and reflection. Looking at the programme and the abstracts for your meeting, it is clear that this will be a serious in-depth conference with a broad remit. You will be considering the nature and impact of racism and discrimination in many different countries and regions and considering appropriate public responses to these phenomena.

Amartya Sen wrote recently that the central issue, directly or indirectly, in the growing scepticism about the global order is inequality: between as well as within nations.

Durban has helped bring into sharper focus the linkages between inequality of treatment - in terms of status, identity, prejudice, and discrimination - and inequality of outcomes - in income, wealth, education, political power, health, housing, marriage and family formation, and other social goods.

Durban has also made clear the critical need for improved policy responses and governance reforms to meet the challenges faced.

I note that the four broad themes you will be addressing are:

· the social construction of race and citizenship;

· the social dynamics of racism and inequalities;

· organised responses to cultural diversity; and

· the impact of public policies on race relations.

Each of these themes provides opportunities to examine the linkages between inequality of treatment and inequality of outcomes, and to make recommendations on how reforms might be implemented.

Take as an example the links between unemployment and heightened ethnic tensions.

We all know that when jobs are scarce, minority and immigrant communities are often most affected. Immigrants may be accused of taking jobs away from others. This in turn can feed the politics of intolerance and racism. The question is: how can policy makers best address these complex issues?

The segment of your conference which focuses on the impact of public policies on race relations will address this question, among others. I have stressed repeatedly that this World Conference offers the opportunity to examine what is effective and what is not in rooting out discrimination and exclusion. Already these issues have been receiving attention at parallel events here. At the Global Compact seminar a few days ago there were useful inputs by business people on the pros and cons of affirmative action; a workshop is being organised jointly by my Office and the ILO to look at racism in the workplace; and an interesting panel discussion was arranged by UNDP on racism and development.

All of these topics need to be discussed frankly and in depth because they all have a direct bearing on whether governments will be successful in reducing inequality.

Governments have developed many policy approaches for tackling racism, discrimination and inequality - ranging from new legislation and socio-economic programmes to education initiatives aimed at changing behaviour and fostering inclusion. Efforts have also been made to assist excluded groups and address past wrongs. I note among the public policy areas you are looking at: governance reforms for minority representation; the role of law enforcement agencies and criminal justice systems; commissions for racial equality and workplace discrimination. Clearly, these are critical areas where public policy, racism and discrimination intersect and I will be interested in your findings.

What I would urge all of you to keep in mind during your discussions is how best your research findings can help shape what will happen after we leave Durban and start the work of implementing the commitments made here. Effective follow-up will be the true test of whether or not Durban is a success.

Equally importantly, we must be able to measure whether or not real progress is being made. I would encourage you to give thought to how the experts UNRISD has brought together for this conference could be involved in studying how the programme of action is being followed up. Government action is of course key, but it would also be important to study new multi-stakeholder approaches and the role of civil society. Having solid academic research in the follow up to Durban would be an enormous contribution to the stock-taking process.

Let me close by saying again how valuable I believe your contribution to the World Conference will be. I thank you for your commitment and I ask you to think of your work here as the beginning of new thinking and analysis in the years to come.

Thank you.