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Racism and Xenophobia: The Role of Governments in Addressing Continuing Challenges

by Mischa Thompson, PhD and Alex Johnson, Staff Advisors

On May 29-30, 2008, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) held the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM), titled “The Role of National Institutions against Discrimination in Combating Racism and Xenophobia with Special Focus on Persons belonging to National Minorities and Migrants” (http://www.osce.org/conferences/shdm1_2008.html). Prior to the meeting, a “roundtable for civil society” was organized by ODIHR to enable civil society representatives to prepare recommendations to be presented during the Opening Session of the SHDM.

The purpose of the Supplementary Meeting was to focus on “National Institutions Against Discrimination” (NIADs) that OSCE countries have developed to combat racism and discrimination. The majority of OSCE countries have in place national human rights or ombudsman institutions to deal with human rights violations in general, however, their mandates and capacity to deal more specifically with manifestations of racism and xenophobia vary, with some having little to no focus on this area. The SHDM examined the role of national institutions in responding to and combating racism and xenophobia in particular, where such cases involve persons belonging to national minorities and migrants.

Official delegations from the OSCE countries took part in the conference, including participation from the U.S. Congress. Representative Alcee L. Hastings, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), participated as head of the Official OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation in his role as President Emeritus of the Parliamentary Assembly (PA). The U.S. Delegation included U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley, as well as Naomi Churchill Earp, Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The two-day Conference featured three panels focused on the role and mandate of NIADs in combating racism and xenophobia, overcoming challenges, and good practices. Additionally, there was a side event hosted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and ODIHR entitled, “Is the right to asylum undermined by racism and xenophobia?” The conference was held in Austria, where reports from the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (EUFRA) and European Network Against Racism (ENAR) had previously cited numerous cases of racism and discrimination impacting Roma, Black, Muslim, Jewish, and migrant communities in education, employment, housing, criminal justice, and other areas (see http://www.fra.europa.eu/factsheets/front/factSheetPage.php?category=1136&country=4&year=2008; http://cms.horus.be/files/99935/MediaArchive/national/Austria_2006.pdf.)

Chairman Hastings, representing the OSCE PA, delivered remarks at the Opening Session of the meeting following presentations from the outgoing Director of ODIHR, Ambassador Christian Strohal, and the incoming Director of EUFRA, Morten Kjaerum. Chairman Hastings’ remarks focused on the importance of the U.S. story in developing remedies to historic injustices, lessons learned, and remaining challenges, including those faced by migrant populations. He noted that, “given the multiple effects of racism and discrimination, there is no single government office that can fully address the problem [and that] the decades of U.S. government institutions fighting discrimination, recruiting from diverse communities, providing education and training opportunities for minorities coupled with efforts from the civil society and private sector were critical to [gains minorities have made in the U.S.].” In addition to noting the need for minority input in the creation and implementation of any strategies, he also stressed the need for action. “I’ve been meeting on efforts to stop racism for 30 years. It’s time for something to be done,” he said.

The need for action also was underscored by a number of attendees of the meeting who cited numerous problems with the political independence of, funding, structure, knowledge of, and mandate of NIADs, which impacted their abilities to adequately address problems faced by the communities they were designed to assist. Calls for NIADs to be independent were raised by numerous civil society members, as they felt links to government prevented prompt and appropriate responses to acts of discrimination. Additionally, this was said to impact their structure, as members of the affected communities cited that they were not appointed to the boards, employed in the organizations, nor consulted in the plans and initiatives of the institutions. One civil society participant cited as evidence of this, that a number of the panelists at the SHDM were not “Muslim, Black, or some other visible minority,” despite playing leading roles in NIADs. Others noted cronyism in the appointments, leading to questions of whether the leaders of a number of the organizations possessed the ‘cultural competency’ needed to adequately address problems of racism and xenophobia.

Concerns about the mandates were also raised, as they were often focused on legal remedies, data collection, and assisting victims, but may not have included or were unsuccessful with outreach, education, and/or empowerment tools, e.g., informing affected communities of anti-discrimination laws and initiatives, providing technical assistance to minority/migrant organizations to represent themselves. For many, these problems indicated a lack of actual political will to solve the problems, which was then also reflected in several NIADs reporting a lack of government funding. These concerns were noted as reasons civil society was in some countries assuming and/or being asked to assume government responsibilities for addressing racism and xenophobia.

Addressing some of these concerns, and underscoring a number of Chairman Hastings’ observations, U.S. delegate Naomi Earp of the EEOC provided remarks on the U.S. approach to combating discrimination during the Opening Session and Session III of the Meeting (Document 1, Document 2). Noting that, “Sadly racism is alive and well,” she detailed the numerous federal, state, and local civil rights programs and institutions in the U.S. created to implement racial equality. She cited politics and funding as primary challenges and noted the need for “a viable consensus” among government actors, civil society, the private sector, and other affected parties to prioritize and formulate successful strategies. “Nations must understand that institutionalizing equal opportunity, while laudable, has financial consequences,” she said, including details of the importance of planned and adequate funding. Moving beyond a paradigm of addressing violent forms of discrimination, she also noted the need to combat systematic or institutionalized discrimination, as well as subtle and blatant forms of discrimination that impact hiring, promotions, and other aspects of the workplace (see E-Race initiative http://www.eeoc.gov/initiatives/e-race/index.html).

A number of other participating States, such as France and Belgium noted how their NIADs were organized and what they did. Others reiterated the growing problems of racism and xenophobia in their societies and cited the need for solutions. Russian Ombudsman Vladmir Lukin remarked, “extremist ideas and xenophobic attitudes are nowadays commonly concealed as formally legitimate disagreement to a state’s migration policy,” and that solutions should also focus on tolerance education, as “responding to already committed crimes makes it impossible to start their effective prevention.”

The Meeting ended with OSCE Chair-in-Office Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions, Anastasia Crickley calling for an increased focus on implementing solutions. She noted that the remarks of two Americans, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings and Naomi Earp, illuminated two key concepts participants should take away from the SHDM. First, she observed that Chairman Hastings demonstrated why, “national institutions and official agencies should reflect the diversity of the communities they represent,” and second that, Ms. Earp demonstrated that participants must “measure issues so that they can address them.” Ms. Crickley also observed that a number of forms of discrimination were inadequately engaged throughout the SHDM proceedings, particularly discrimination faced by Roma and Sinti communities.

Expected outcomes of the meeting included the creation and/or strengthening of NIADs by OSCE participating States, increased cooperation and partnerships of NIADs with civil society, and assistance for burgeoning NIADs. Additionally, the development and implementation of national action plans with the consultation of civil society, improved data collection, research, and reporting, and maintaining a focus on combating racism and xenophobia in the face of attempts to refocus the conversation solely on integration and immigration were highlighted. Many questions of what the follow-up to this meeting could be remained, including possible trainings and technical assistance to strengthen NIADs, outreach and empowerment initiatives for affected communities, the role of the private sector, and as well as the need for participating States themselves to better understand racism, xenophobia, and discrimination and how best to adequately, design, fund, implement, and sustain successful strategies.

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