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Article 2: All people are entitled to rights without distinction based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, opinion, origin, property, birth or residency

  • The UN World Conference Against Racism, held in South Africa in 2001, was conceived as a way of bringing racism into the open and creating an action plan to combat racism and racial discrimination.
  • Delegates planned to discuss the racism inflicted on Europe's Roma community, Namibia's Herero tribe, Australia's aborigines, ethnic Albanians, and Kurds among other peoples. The plight of thousands of economic migrants and asylum seekers was also to be addressed.
  • At the end of the conference, delegates hammered out a final declaration of principles and an action plan.

Historical Background

Between 1973 and 2003, there have been a series of conferences aimed at combating racism and racial discrimination.

The First World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination was held in Geneva in 1978. A follow up conference was held five years later and, most recently, the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance which took place in Durban in 2001.

In 1993, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) appointed a Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

As an independent expert, this person examines institutionalised and indirect forms of racial discrimination against national, racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, as well as migrant workers and their families.

Divided Opinion

The UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance demonstrated how divided international opinion can be.

When delegates began discussing Israel's treatment of Palestinians and how to word it into the final international document or declaration, the conference nearly veered into chaos.

The draft document stated the emergence of "movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas, in particular the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority." Subsequently, the US and Israeli delegations pulled out.

The Slave Trade

On the issue of the Slave Trade, African governments, African Americans and human rights campaigners demanded an apology for the pain inflicted on thousands of Africans.

Many said the Slave Trade should be recognised as a crime against humanity. Others requested financial compensation, also called reparations.

Historians estimate between 10 to 28 million Africans were shipped overseas during the slave trade. While experts dispute figures, there is little debate on the cruelty endured by the men, women and children who were chained in the holds of the slave ships. Many died before reaching their destination.

The Slave Trade was formally abolished in 1833.


The European Union was ready to issue a strongly worded condemnation of slavery. But issuing a formal apology would have left individual governments open to lawsuits, which could have lead to issuing reparations.

In terms of an apology, some delegates questioned who would sign up as African rulers were also actively involved in the slave trade, selling slaves to Arabs and Europeans alike.


A total of 160 states agreed with the final declaration.

The final text of the declaration states: "Slavery and the slave trade are crimes against humanity... "

It urges all governments, "who have not contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so" but does not call for the United Kingdom, and other former colonial powers, to pay reparations.

The declaration also avoids direct criticism of Israel and adds, "We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation" and their "inalienable right... to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent state."

Identifying victim groups

Reflecting on the importance of the conference, Mary Robinson, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said "Amongst the most striking aspects of the consensus which emerged out of Durban was the identification of a number of specific victim groups..."

She added, "For me personally, the most vivid memories of that complex and difficult conference were of the ordinary people, many of whom had never travelled before, who had come from all corners of the globe to tell their own stories."

Follow Up Events

In July 2002, experts on human rights met in Mexico City at the Latin American and Caribbean Regional Seminar of Experts. They discussed ideas and ways of implementing the Durban Programme of Action.

A second regional seminar, titled "Implementation of the Durban Programme of Action: an exchange of ideas and how to move forward," was held in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2002. Experts were requested to prepare papers on different policies and strategies aimed at combating racism.

The UNCHR has also recently created a working group of five independent experts who study racial discrimination experienced by people of African descent.