Tackling racism

We are more than the colour of our skin
Addressing racism and racial discrimination at the United Nations
21 Feb 2023

Racism is an institutionalized system that perpetuates racial superiority, engenders discrimination and exclusion, and fosters an unequal distribution of resources, privileges, and power. It encompasses economic, political, and social values, structures, beliefs, and practices that are deeply rooted and legitimized in culture, education, and praxis. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 created an inflection point in public consciousness about racism and racial discrimination. Throughout the world, people of all races took to the streets to repudiate racism. The echoes of this global movement reached the United Nations. Having strongly condemned the killing of George Floyd, Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “racism is an abhorrence that we must all reject.” For their part, the UN Staff urged the organization to address racism and racial discrimination not only in society but also within the workplace.

The Secretary-General launched the Strategic Action Plan (SAP) on Addressing Racism and Promoting Dignity for All in February 2022. The SAP recognises that racism and racial discrimination are alive in the organization. In June 2022, the General Assembly established the Anti-Racism Team (ART) to coordinate and oversee the implementation of the SAP; and in January 2023 the Secretary-General appointed Ms. Mojankunyane Gumbi as the Special Adviser on Addressing Racism in the Workplace. 

There is no doubt that racism constitutes a widespread challenge in today’s globalizing world. But I think it is important to understand its history. The concept of race is relatively new, having been invented in the eighteenth century as a tool to justify inequality and injustice on biological grounds. However, race has neither biological nor scientific validity; race is a social and political construct, and racism is the system that operationalizes ideas and beliefs of racial superiority and supremacy. Racism and the racialization of society have been instrumental to legitimize slavery and the transatlantic slave trade – a greatest crime against humanity. Today, the descendants of Africans who were enslaved continue to be victims of its consequences. They have also been critical to legitimize colonisation of native and indigenous populations.

Anti-racism team

Certainly, the United Nations is not immune to these systemic trends. When the organization was established in 1945, about one third of the world’s nations, mostly in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, had not yet obtained their sovereignty. Therefore, the UN reflected the vision and perspectives of the colonizing and slave owning nations that played a key role in the onset of the organization. Many of the UN’s early international civil servants were drawn from these powerful countries, and their worldview shaped the organization’s ethos.

It was only in 1960 that, through the work of its Trusteeship Council, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a declaration on the right of all people to self-determination, and established the Special Committee on Decolonization. When most African States, newly emerging from colonial rule, became members of the United Nations they called for an agenda that linked decolonization with anti-racial discrimination. Although the principle of non-discrimination was already inscribed in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, the new member states demanded greater prominence of anti-racial discrimination in international law. And, following these efforts, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted in 1965, and in 1979, the United Nations recognized the 21st of March (the day of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa) as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

It would take another 22 years before the 2001 the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was adopted. A subsequent development was the Montevideo Consensus in August 2013, which, among other issues, called for protection of indigenous and Afro-descendent populations against discrimination, and for support to help them overcome historical structural disparities and inequities. This effort led to the proclamation in December 2013 of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), with the 31st of August designated a few years later as the International Day for People of African Descent.

Regrettably, despite all these high-level conferences, and well-intentioned declarations and celebratory dates, racism and racial discrimination continue to plague inter-racial relations globally, and within the United Nations itself. Racial discrimination within the organization may take the form of biases embedded in organizational culture, systems, and structures that foster inequalities in recruitment, career development, deployment to field operations, and access to leadership positions among others. Manifestations of racism may also be found in the administration of justice as staff members fail to report racist behaviour for lack of accountability, fear of retaliation and loss of livelihood. Furthermore, racism may be manifested in interpersonal interactions through overt or implicit forms, such as slurs and microaggressions. 

There is no doubt that the challenges are enormous. I believe that addressing racism and racial discrimination at the United Nations will take time, and will entail an approach that educates and equips all managers and staff with the tools to identify and combat racism; an approach that proactively reviews, creates, and reinforces policies, practices, and attitudes that will deliver equity and dignity for all in the workplace. 

This is precisely the approach I and the Anti-Racism Team intend to take; one that embraces a holistic and symbiotic vision intertwining advocacy, transparency, and accountability. Advocacy work will entail creating greater awareness about racism and racial discrimination, and delivering efficient training and learning to enhance knowledge, constructive dialogue, and promote behavioural change among UN leaders and staff members. Transparency work will involve gathering and analysing vital data about the current state of the organisations’ workforce; undertaking transformative reforms in human resources policies and procedures; and producing dashboards with data sets of up-to-date information on recruitments, new appointments, promotions, staff mobility, and career development opportunities, publicly accessible to all staff. Accountability work will include reviewing and reforming reporting and accountability processes; promoting safe spaces to encourage complaints and reporting of racist behaviour; enhancing the diversity in investigative and deliberative panels; establishing support mechanisms for victims, such as counselling; and making public the outcomes of the most egregious cases to allow for lessons learned. These three essential pillars must be implemented simultaneously.

The Anti-Racism Team is new, and our work has only just begun. I strongly believe that the United Nations’ fight against racism will demand strong engagement from everyone. It will not succeed if it is only undertaken by, or seen as the fight of, those who are at the receiving end of racial discrimination. Each, and every one of us must combat racism and racial discrimination in the workplace. WE ALL need to check our own biases; WE ALL need to be tolerant and be respectful of our rich cultural diversity; WE ALL need to protect and support each other; and WE ALL need to be aware of, and report, racial discrimination (interpersonal, institutional, and structural) whenever we come across it, both on our own behalf or on behalf of others. I have no doubt that only in so doing, will we be able to achieve the promise of dignity for ALL.

* Alcinda Manuel Honwana is a Director of the Anti-Racism Team, OUSG/DMSPC, United Nations Secretariat
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