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Against racism

Racial discrimination is increasing, and not only against Indian students in Australia. Dismissing racist attacks as hooliganism will not help, says Mukul Sharma. There is an urgent need to speak out frequently, strongly and at all levels of government against racism and xenophobia

Australian students from India protesting racism

Xenophobia against non-nationals, particularly migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, constitutes one of the main sources of contemporary racism. 

-- Paragraph 16, Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, 2001 

The recent attacks on Indian students in Australia do not suggest that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are peculiar to that country. They are problems that occur on a daily basis in every part of the world, hindering progress in the lives of millions of people. By impeding the employment opportunities of individuals and making it difficult for them to enjoy the basic human right of equality, or fuelling ethnic hatred that ends in genocide, racism and related intolerance destroys lives. Advancing the struggle against racism is imperative. Yet when the Durban Review Conference provided an opportunity recently (April 20-24, 2009, Geneva) to assess and accelerate the implementation of measures adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the governments of Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland decided to disengage from the conference. Italy and the United States have stayed outside it. Israel and the USA did not support the DDPA (Durban Declaration and Programme of Action) even in 2001. This is one indicator of how and where prominent countries stand today on the elimination of racial discrimination from state policy and practice, protecting individuals from racial discrimination by non-state actors and public officials, and ensuring that the right to live free of racial discrimination is enjoyed by all.  

Several authoritative official reports on country after country -- Australia, France, Estonia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, New Zealand, Latvia, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, UK, USA -- document the fact that people are subjected to serious rights violations because of their racial, ethnic or religious identity. 

Both racial discrimination and hate crimes occur regularly. And can be direct and indirect. Racial discrimination can be defined as distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, with the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.  

Hate crimes are criminal offences, including offences against persons or property, where the victim, premises, or target of the offence are selected because of their real or perceived connection, attachment, affiliation, support, or membership with a group, based upon a characteristic common to its members, such as real or perceived race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or other similar factors. 

In the specific case of Australia, racist attacks and discrimination against foreigners and ethnic minorities are reported with shocking regularity and, disturbingly, their frequency seems to be increasing. Victims whose cases have come to attention include Muslims, students, asylum-seekers and refugees. Indian students need justice, in the sense of ensuring that crimes that are racially motivated are effectively and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted.  

Certain measures are imperative. We need to ensure that victims of racially motivated crimes enjoy an enforceable right to reparation, including fair and adequate compensation. There should be a system in place which ensures that complaints of discriminatory behaviour exhibited by the police and other officials are investigated thoroughly, promptly, transparently and independently; and this system should be widely publicised. Action needs to be taken against any officials under investigation for racial discrimination. Those who lodge complaints of racial discrimination, witnesses, and others involved should receive protection against any form of intimidation, harassment or abuse. Classification of racially motivated crimes as merely ‘hooliganism’ or motivated by ‘hooliganism’ should end. Incidents of racist attacks across Australia should be monitored and recorded accurately, and the information must be made available to government agencies, NGOs and the wider public. The monitoring should follow a clear methodology of what constitutes a racist attack, in accordance with some standards. There is an urgent need to speak out frequently, strongly and at all levels of government against racism and xenophobia in all its forms, and publicly acknowledge the seriousness of the issue and the need to take concerted action to address it.

Indian students are not the only victims. In a 2004 report, the Australian Human Rights Commission documented the growth since September 11, 2001 of discrimination, vilification and violence directed at Arab and Muslim citizens and residents of Australia, noting that many incidents of this nature are not reported to the authorities. We should also recall the widely documented case of the Quranic Society that purchased 15 acres of land and produced detailed plans for a school of 1,200 students in the town of Camden just outside Sydney. The school was to cater to both Muslim and non-Muslim students and follow the New South Wales educational curriculum. Residents of the community made anti-Muslim comments in their opposition to the school, and only a small minority of the large volume of submissions received by the council on the proposal were in favour of the project. The application for planning approval was rejected by the Camden Council, on May 27, 2008. Several council members, including Mayor Chris Patterson, stated that the decision to reject the application was based on ‘planning grounds’, and was ‘not religious’. However, a subsequent proposal to build a Catholic school on a site in Camden was welcomed by the resident action group which opposed the Islamic school, and by the mayor who said that in the absence of precise plans, the proposed new school would be built on an existing school site.

Another noted case was the Land and Environment Court’s approval of an application for construction of an Islamic school in Bankstown, Sydney, after the local council had twice rejected a planning application. In December 2008, another proposal to build an Australian Islamic college on the Gold Coast, Queensland, was met with opposition by the local community. There were ‘concerned’ residents rallying for ‘no Muslim schools’.

Consider also the asylum-seekers in Australia who are now held in the government’s new detention facility on Christmas Island. This facility is comparable to a high-security prison in its design and construction. In his ‘Immigration Detention Report 2008’, the human rights commissioner has inter alia criticised the use of the Christmas Island facility. There are a number of cases like this.

Notwithstanding the difficult negotiations and actions that threatened to derail the conference, the consensus adoption of the Outcome Document by the Durban Review Conference was a significant achievement for the international community. States were able to come together to re-affirm the DDPA.

It is now time to turn to action and implementation of the DDPA and the Outcome Document. All states should renew their efforts to implement the DDPA, beginning at the national level. In this regard, a proposal to establish a UN observatory on racism is encouraging. States need to approach this task in an action-oriented fashion, avoiding the mutual recriminations and politicisation and political bargaining that marred so much of the conference and its preparatory process. Communities need to come out from their conservative boundaries of identity, politics and ideology. Only an active and committed approach by states can decide the outcome.

The sufferers, their communities and families, non-governmental organisations and other civil society actors are also essential in combating all forms of racism. Indian students and their families should remember the words of Martin Niemöller, a German pastor and theologian: When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. Then they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat. Then they came for the trade unionists, I did not protest; I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, I did not speak out; I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

(Mukul Sharma is a writer and journalist. His forthcoming book is Human Rights Footprints: Indian Crossovers in a Globalised World, published by SAGE Publications)

Infochange News & Features, June 2009