By PATRICK HUNTER
The debate over the relevance of the United Nations has been around for as long as it has existed.
To be sure, much of the negatives about the UN centres on its perceived role as peacekeeper. Nevertheless, whether you support or believe in the organization’s existence, it has provided very useful benchmarks, supported by historical facts, that enable the struggle against a lot of bad things that happen in our world.
We have come to the realization that these struggles are ongoing, most of which have no end in sight. The best we can hope for, it would seem, is that the struggle continues with some degree of success, even marginally, towards a better world.
There are, hopefully, only a very few people in the world who would defend slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Of course, regardless of how many do, it is still far too many.
Fast forward to 1960, March 21st. A peaceful protest in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa turned bloody. The unarmed participants were protesting the infamous “pass laws” imposed by the racist South African regime which required Africans – Black Africans – to carry a “pass book” that essentially restricted the movements of Black people in White areas.
The heavily-armed police opened fire on the protesters leaving 69 dead and nearly 200 wounded.
In 1966, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring March 21st as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the assumption being that racism and racial discrimination were the root causes of the Sharpeville massacre.
Another related product of the United Nations was the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). This was essentially an agreement and promise by the signatory states to undertake efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. It states in part that the signatory states be “Resolved to adopt all necessary measures for speedily eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations, and to prevent and combat racist doctrines and practices in order to promote understanding between races and to build an international community free from all forms of racial segregation and racial discrimination…” Canada was one of the original signatories in 1966.
The UN also established a committee – the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) – to which member states (signatories of the Convention) are required to report periodically on efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. As most would expect, governments go off and collect as much information as they can, or manufacture them, to show that they have actively made efforts and progress on eliminating racial discrimination.
In Canada, for example, the federal government puts that report together based on some of the programs it can manipulate to show progress as it relates to racism and racial discrimination, and gathers similar input from provincial governments. They hold a one-day meeting, usually in Ottawa, which they refer to as a consultation with the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to get their feedback on these “efforts”.
Of its most recent report to CERD, Canada tries to mask its lack of effort and progress with a lot of cloud cover. For one, it is difficult to establish that you have made progress in employment of persons of African descent or African Canadians when you do not have disaggregated data to show a beginning and the current situation. This is one of the concerns that the Committee reiterated in response to Canada’s report: that Canada provides, in its next report, “reliable and comprehensive statistical data…disaggregated by ethnicity, gender, including Aboriginal peoples, African Canadians and immigrants” so that the Committee can better evaluate progress (paraphrased for brevity). This could be a serious problem, given that the Harper government got rid of the Census long form.
The Committee also reiterated its call to reconsider the use of the term “visible minority”, which I have discussed previously in this space.
Another key concern the Committee expressed was about the treatment of African Canadians in the criminal justice system, from racial profiling to sentencing. It makes specific recommendations to, among other things, “investigate and punish the practice of racial profiling”, and to provide “statistical data on the treatment of African Canadians in the criminal justice system”.
The complete comments and recommendations of the Committee are worth reading. It reminds us that the rest of the world is watching on our behalf and fuels not only our concerns but also our drive to have the different levels of government treat this matter seriously. It also provides some key elements on which to base our choice of representation at election time.
So, when you venture into this year’s pro forma event to mark the International Day, ask not only yourself, but also of the organizers: Have we really made any progress in reducing the capacity to discriminate on the basis of race, colour and ethnicity over the past year? And, not only ask, but try to get an answer.