Racism and Human Rights

Defining Race and Racism

What is a race? Most scholars today agree that among human beings, race has no scientific significance, pointing out that all living humans belong to the same species. What may seem to be significant “racial” differences to some people – skin color, hair, facial shape – are of little scientific significance. In fact, genetic differences within a so-called race may be greater than those between races. Although still used in general contexts, race has often been replaced by other words that are less ambiguous and emotionally charged, such as populations, people(s), ethnic groups, or communities.

In earlier centuries, however, many scientists subscribed to the simple belief that human populations were divided into separate races, a theory that was often used to justify the belief that some races were inferior to others and should be treated differently. This thinking resulted in “institutional racism,” in which attitudes, policies, and laws give preferential treatment to “superior races” and deny rights or benefits to others. It also supported practices such as the slave trade, suppression of native peoples, and colonial domination of subject populations.

While race is now generally understood to be a social construct rather than a scientific reality, concepts of race continue to affects people’s lived experience through racism, the institutionalized practices of preference and discrimination based on differences of what is presumed to be race.

Racism and Human Rights

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD, Race Convention, 1965) does not define racism but uses the term term “racial discrimination” to mean:

… any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms …

Since its beginning the UN has established as one of its fundamental goals “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.[1] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), the foundation document of the human rights framework, declares in Article 1:

                     “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

As the human rights framework developed over the decades, the understanding of discrimination has steadily expanded to include any distinction that results in any person’s enjoyment of their full human rights, including any form of racism.

Related Human Rights Instruments

[1] Charter of the United Nations.

[2] For a more detailed discussion of anti-racism and non-discrimination, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 113: http://www.etc-graz.at/typo3/fileadmin/user_upload/ETC-Hauptseite/manual/versionen/english_3rd_edition/Manual_2012_FINAL.pdf.