1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion

Racism and Public Policy

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001


The third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was held in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September 2001. World leaders examined progress made in the fight against racism since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related conventions and resolutions; discussed ways of improving the application of existing standards and instruments to combat racism; reviewed the social, economic, political, cultural and historical factors that drive racism and racial discrimination; and recommended measures to be adopted at the national, regional and international level for combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance. While the preparatory meetings and the Durban conference itself exposed sharp differences among countries and groups on some of the core agenda items, they also underscored the need to understand racial cleavages and discrimination in formulating development policies.

The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) invited 30 high-level scholars from various regions of the world to prepare papers and lead discussions at a parallel UNRISD conference held from 3 – 5 September. More than 500 individuals representing governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, academia and the media participated in the meeting. The conference provided participants with research findings, insights and policy debates on some of the core issues of racism, xenophobia and intolerance as they affect different groups, countries and regions. It examined the opportunities, problems and challenges of public policies devised for overcoming racist and xenophobic practices in different settings. It focused on four broad themes: the social construction of race and citizenship; the social dynamics of racism and inequalities; organized responses to cultural diversity; and the impact of public policies on race relations. There were 10 panels, an opening session and a keynote speech.

Two important public policy issues were highlighted throughout the three days of discussions. The first is the complex ways racial cleavages have influenced the evolution of citizenship, especially in countries with deep ethno-racial divisions. Much of the history of efforts to construct a responsive and accountable public sphere can be seen as struggles to demolish racial barriers and incorporate previously excluded groups into the system of rights and obligations that define citizenship. Struggles for universal citizenship underscore the need to respect cultural diversity and its underlying values of tolerance, accommodation and human solidarity. The second issue is the promotion of social justice and equitable governance, which is seen as a fundamental requirement for achieving stability and consolidating the values of citizenship. However, reforms that seek to promote social justice and equitable governance are often fraught with difficulties as they deal with redistributive issues. They may be seen in zero-sum terms by some citizens. Potential losers may resist or undermine reforms, while those who stand to gain may not be strong enough to defend them. These issues were discussed in 10 sessions and covered a wide range of countries and regions: the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, South and South East Asia, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, Western Europe, Southern Africa and the Afro-Arab borderlands.
UNRISD is disseminating the findings of its research for the conference in a variety of formats, including Programme Papers, an issue of Conference News, and an edited volume. A document containing abstracts of the papers was distributed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights as a background document in a meting of prominent persons during the third preparatory meeting of the World Conference in Geneva. Papers and abstracts prepared for the conference as well as the agenda and list of participants can be viewed by clicking on "Events" and "Unpublished Papers" on the right.

The UNRISD project on Racism and Public Policy was carried out with the support of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The project was co-ordinated by Yusuf Bangura