Africana Plus

No46 September 2001.4

South Africa
World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance

"On 16 May the Algerian National Assembly approved additions to the penal code which increased the penalties for defamation in the press and condemned subversive sermons preached in the mosques by imams. The vote was taken amid uproar, and the press gave wide coverage to what it called the suppression of freedom."

This is just one piece of news from Africa reflecting intolerance and discrimination as daily realities. Here is another item from Europe. Speaking in the name of the European Community, the Swedish Prime Minister, Mr Persson,. recognized the growth of racism and intolerance in Europe, and uttered a word of warning: "We must be ready to deal with despair, for if we are not other forces will take over."

And then something nearer home:

"Quebec society behaves like a community under siege," says Jesus Jimenez Orte, president of the executive committee of the League for the Rights and Liberties of Quebec. "It sees itself as a minority community and wants to justify itself. It does not reject other cultural communities, but it are not ready for their part to make a corresponding sacrifice. Quebec society, we may say, is quite tolerant, but this does not prevent it from making strong statements about what is and what is not tolerable."

Intolerance is everywhere in the world. No doubt there are different degrees of intensity and violence, but the ban on all discrimination based on race is a basic principle of the United Nations. Several juridical documents, notably the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights, speak explicitly about racial discrimination. Yet in spite of all these international efforts, the phenomenon remains. In 1997 the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to convoke, in 2001 at the latest, a World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia, and the intolerance associated with these things. This decision reflects a growing uneasiness in the international community concerning the growth of these dangerous attitudes, and a consciousness of what is at stake as the human family seeks to counteract them.

The Conference is being organized by the UN High Commission for Human Rights, based in Geneva, and it is due to take place in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September 2001. Mary Robinson, High Commissioner of the United Nations, has been appointed Secretary General of the Conference. The preparatory committee, which has been given the task of formulating a provisional declaration and programme for the Conference, has chosen as its motto: "United against racism: Equality, Justice, Dignity". Five major themes for reflection and action have been identified by this preparatory committee:

- The origins, causes, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and associated intolerance;

- The victims of racism and racial discrimination;

- Preventive measures, including education and protection, aimed at eradicating racism at national, regional and international levels;

- Remedies and resources available for combating racism at the national, regional and international levels;

- Strategies which will lead to effective and complete equality, including international co-operation and the improvement of international mechanisms, among them the United Nations, for combatting racism.

In December 1999 Mrs Robinson chose seven internationally-respected personalities as "prime ambassadors of good will" to the Conference, drawn from literature, music and the defence of human rights. Among them are the Nobel prizewinners for literature, Seamus Heaney from Ireland and Wole Soyinka from Nigeria; the Panamanian musician and actor, Ruben Blades; the Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun; the Indian musician Ravi Shankar; the former President of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir; and Marian Wright Edeleman, from the United States, defender of children's rights. Mrs Robinson considers that the commitment of these eminent persons to mutual tolerance between persons and communities is what the international community needs as it prepares to confront one of humanity's most insidious and persistent evils, racism, xenophobia and all other forms of intolerance.

The first duty of the United Nations is to promote and maintain peace in the world. It was the essential aim of the founders of the Organization and it remains no less essential today.

Its second task is to promote development. Up till today, a substantial portion of the human race lives in conditions of misery which are an affront to human dignity. Poverty is at the root of many evils, including war, the degradation of the environment and natural catastrophes like epidemics. Africa is the principal victim of most of these miseries, and the consequent needs of that continent deserve special attention.

Kupelesa Ilunga, a Congolese Jesuit from Kinshasa, said this about the events in Central Africa: "Intolerance has let loose a vicious spirit of aggression which finds expression in the barbaric acts of a culture of death. Among us aggression hides behind what it calls rebellion against a policy of exclusion and turns into a kind of puppet theatre. It is hard to understand the logic of a policy which maintains that to preserve your frontiers you have to attack your neighbours. None of our countries seeks to defend itself in the first place by negotiation. We allow peace, justice, tolerance and prosperity to collapse, and promote everything which leads to intolerance, trouble, desolation."

The third duty of the United Nations is to promote human rights, and this too is evidently a continuing struggle.. We have only to think in the first place of the right to life, so often endangered.

The fourth task of the Organization is to guarantee the equality of all its members. Those individuals who practise discrimination violate the fundamental equality of all human persons, based on this common dignity.

The first article of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states:"All men are born free and equal in rights and dignity. They enjoy reason and conscience, and must act towards each other in a spirit of fraternity." The Second Vatican Council declared in its Constitution on The Church in the Modern World: "All men are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God's image; they have the same nature and origin and, being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling and destiny; there is here a basic equality between all men and it must be given ever greater recognition." (No 29)

Pope John Paul II has expressed his support for the forthcoming World Conference in South Africa. He wishes to encourage all initiatives to prevent the dissemination of racism and intolerance.

As mentioned above, intolerance and discrimination are on the increase. They affect the whole spectrum of the fundamental rights of persons and communities, but they harm especially the weak, whether this weakness is physical, social, cultural, political, ethnic, religious.

All these forms of discrimination have clearly a common root, a prejudice in favour of one's own superiority. It is this prejudice which underlies and strengthens a whole host of motivations and interests which may often be regarded as good and honest. It is here that we see both the necessity and the difficulty of education to tolerance and respect, to be imparted by family, school and state.

Sometimes the word "tolerance" has negative overtones of a condescending paternalism. The one who tolerates has then a privileged position over those whom he or she tolerates. This understanding of the nature of tolerance is in fact destructive of genuine tolerance, which has nothing to do with condescension but is concerned wholly with the fundamental rights mentioned above. Whatever offends these rights is felt as intolerable to the dignity of the human person, whatever be the cultural pretext.

To be tolerant, finally, means to respect the other. It is the knowledge and acceptance of the other in his difference which give us the wisdom which is tolerance.

We may compare human beings to flowers. These would soon lose their charm if they all had the same colour and the same smell. Yet the diversity which enchants us when we are considering flowers irritates us when we are dealing with human beings. Anyone who thinks differently from me is displeasing to me. You think blue, I think red, and so we are enemies. You are for authority and I am for freedom, and that is enough for us to stop respecting each other. I am a sinner because I am not the same as you. So we separate, we become enemies.

Hence arises intolerance, the conviction that one has the monopoly of truth and rationality. Pride and stupidity are twins, and they are the true progenitors of the wars of intolerance which have disfigured the whole of human history. And yet all the fighting and the struggle has not liberated us from those diseases of the soul. We can be cured only when we accept that we are not self-sufficient.

Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Only then will we become children of our Heavenly Father who makes his sun to rise equally on the virtuous and the wicked, and causes the rain to fall on good and bad alike. (Matt. 5, 44-45)

So you can be the rose and I shall be the lily. Let us both blossom in the lavish flower-bed where the same Gardener has planted us and where he gives us day after day our portion of water and light.

Michel Fortin, M. Afr.

Back to main menu