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The U.N, the E.U., and Racism in the time of COVID-19

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

The 46th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council commenced on the 22nd of February, 2021. Out of a preponderance of caution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the first almost entirely virtual regular session of the HRC. The first day of the 46th HRC session also marked the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Adopted at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001, the DDPA placed the onus of combatting racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on governments, which were also encouraged to draw up national action plans on the issue and ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.[1] The DDPA’s vigentennial was marked by a High-Level Panel on Human Rights Mainstreaming which addressed the current status of the fight against racism and discrimination in the face of COVID-19.

2020 saw the scapegoating of racial and/or ethnic minorities as the primary carriers of the contagion or their exclusion from crucial social, financial and health-related interventions. The High-Level Panel’s focus on the Declaration’s 20th anniversary was therefore timely because of the myriad ways in which COVID-19 highlighted and exacerbated the vulnerability of already marginalised groups. The European Union made a statement which recognised that systemic racism is present in law enforcement, the justice system, labour, housing, education, healthcare, politics and migration, and that effectively combating it necessitates an intersectional approach to response measures. It cannot be ignored that there is often increased vulnerability based on factors like sex, age, religion or belief, migration status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and political or other opinion.[2]

Special procedure mandate holders[3] at the UN expressed concern over what they described as a rising wave of racially motivated violence and other incidents against Asian-Americans and migrants of Asian origin attributable to the virus’ origins being traced to China. In China itself, authorities in the Guangdong province targeted African migrants for forced COVID-19 testing and at times draconian quarantine measures. Many Africans were evicted from their homes and forced to sleep on the streets or in hotels. Others were refused entry or service in shops and restaurants. On a larger scale, similar fates befell asylum seekers and refugees, 80% of whom reside in low- and middle-income countries. Living conditions (cramped spaces and/or limited access to healthcare services and information) have left them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and prevailing social and political conditions have left them highly susceptible to being blamed for spreading it.

2020 also proved to be a volatile year for minority groups in other ways. In Xinjiang, China, the state-sponsored persecution of Uighur Muslims continued. Since 2014, they have been prevented from practicing their religion, subjected to heavy surveillance and controlled birth rates, and detained in internment camps where they have been tortured, raped, politically indoctrinated and forced to live in cramped conditions which increase their vulnerability to contracting COVID-19. In late February 2021, through a non-binding motion, Canada became the second country to describe the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims as genocide.[4]

Across the Atlantic, George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers triggered protests across the U.S. and around the world. From Berlin to Nairobi to Kyoto to Sydney, thousands held vigils and demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and challenged systemic racism in their own countries. Four weeks after Floyd’s death, the E.U. adopted a resolution on anti-racism protests recognising police brutality as a racial issue particularly affecting communities of colour, and calling on the U.S. government to address and end this particular form of structural racism and inequality. The declaration also acknowledged the long overdue reckoning with Europe’s own racist past that finally arrived when anti-racism protests swept the continent.

While Americans toppled Confederate monuments, statues of slave traders were taken down in England and a statue of King Leopold II was removed from its pride of place in Antwerp, Belgium. Equally as important as addressing the past, and certainly more urgent, is the need for E.U. and other European countries to address present-day structural racism in their societies. While former E.U. Commissioner, Margaritis Schinas, may have expressed the view last year that the E.U. was doing better than the U.S. in terms of race, systemic racism remains a serious problem in the region. Racial and ethnic minorities in Europe continue to contend with discrimination based on their names, their skin colour and their citizenship in employment, education, access to healthcare, goods and services, interactions with law enforcement and even when interacting with emerging technologies and A.I. The E.U launched its Anti-Racism Action Plan 2020-2025 in September 2020 to address this. The Action Plan encourages Member States to combat all of these forms of discrimination, as well as establish independent bodies responsible for promoting equality and assisting victims of discrimination.

How effectively the Anti-Racism Action Plan will combat racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia remains to be seen. In the face of rising extremism and the ever-increasing threat posed by white supremacy to national and international security, this will likely prove an uphill battle. It may leave many of us wondering whether Europeans really are prepared to confront and address the full range of their feelings towards those who continue to be pushed into the margins of their societies.

[1] With 182 States Parties, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is tied at 3rd place with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as the most ratified UN human rights international instrument. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women are in first and second place with 196 and 189 States Parties, respectively. [2] UN Secretary-General António Guterres recognised this in part during the opening session of the 46th session when he stated that some of the worst impacts of racial and gender-based discrimination are in the overlaps experienced by women from racial and ethnic minority groups. [3] The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls. [4] The first country to do so was the United States, under the Trump administration.

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