UN Truth Teller on Racism, Xenophobia and Intolerance Sees Signs of Hope Amid COVID Quagmire and Rising Hate Speech |

Tendayi Achiume is a half-Zambian, half-Zimbabwean professor of human rights at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and occupies a key independent role within the United Nations human rights system, in as special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, to quote the entirety of his official brief.

This year, she played a key role in the follow-up to the 20-year-old Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DPPA) aimed at eliminating racial injustice and inequalities, across the world, at a a time when COVID-19 has helped exacerbate hate speech and fuel hatred and fear in all its forms.

UN News met Professor Achiume and asked her how she views the stress and tensions of a world reeling from the pandemic, and its aggravating effects on intolerance, racism and racial discrimination.

Its most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly underlines the importance of the historic Durban Declaration in finally eradicating racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

It sees the Durban framework as a “revolutionary instrument” for human rights principles, with priorities still relevant twenty years after member states first adopted this anti-discrimination program in South Africa, and asserts that while racism manifests itself differently from one society to another, none of us are exempt from the effects.

To hear our full conversation with Ms. Achiume, listen here to our latest special edition of The cover is on, as well as other in-depth reporting on the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration, on our Durban Sketches page.

Racism and COVID-19

Unsplash / Jean Beller

Tributes are paid to George Floyd outside the grocery store in the US state of Minnesota where he was murdered by a police officer.

Looking back on the 18 months since COVID-19 began sweeping the planet, Achiume highlighted the international racial justice uprisings the world witnessed in 2020, starting with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and considers this as a watershed moment in the world against systemic racism.

The UN expert described the widespread protests this summer as “a time of hope”, adding that cries for racial justice could spark “political will, momentum among UN member states, to really take some of the complaints around the world seriously. “

Despite these massive expressions of solidarity, Ms. Achiume expressed her concerns about the persistence of structural forms of racism and xenophobia. In countries around the world, she explained that inequalities during the pandemic are highlighted by challenges widely affecting racial, ethnic and national minorities or marginalized groups, with unequal access to care during the world’s biggest health crisis. From our era.

“On a transnational level, what people have described as vaccine apartheid, the allocation of access to vaccines, is drastically different depending on whether you are in the North or the South,” Ms. Achiume said.

The Special Rapporteur said there were signs of hope for a future without racial hatred, but recognized a deep complexity in the current state of racism.

Global dialogue


Taking only what they can carry, thousands of Rohingya flee violence in northern Myanmar's Rakhine state and seek refuge in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox's Bazar.

PAM / Saikat Mojumder

Taking only what they can carry, thousands of Rohingya flee violence in northern Myanmar’s Rakhine state and seek refuge in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox’s Bazar.

One of the challenges of taking charge of one’s thesis is to confront the different expressions of racism from one country to another.

“The way racism is characterized in the United States is very different from how it might be characterized in Singapore or the UK or Morocco or wherever it might be,” Ms. Achiume said. “That’s not to say that there isn’t discrimination or intolerance, but the way it works and manifests itself is very different.”

Ms Achiume told UN News that recent events have unified the international dialogue on related issues.

“One thing that has changed since the last time we spoke, and I mentioned it after the murder of George Floyd, there was a way of thinking and talking about racism and in some places even xenophobia “she said, acknowledging that people” of all races, ethnicities, genders on the streets “were demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd in the United States and beyond.

The UN expert also underlined the considerable damage caused by discrimination, explaining that “there is no one who is not affected by racism, xenophobia and all these structures”.

Unforeseen path

Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.

UN Photo / Manuel Elías

Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Ms Achiume’s journey, from being born in a small town in Zambia to teaching law at university level and advocating for racial equality, was not based on calculation.

“I’ve spent most of my life thinking I’d be a doctor or an engineer or something. I’ve always been interested in human beings and making the world a better place for everyone to live, ”she said.

“I think it was when I was in college, in the United States actually, when I took a course in development law and policy that I really became fascinated with law as a ‘tool for social change,’ added Ms. Achiume.

“At the time, human rights frameworks seemed the most attractive for making sense of human suffering and for combating it,” she continued.

Racism and emerging technologies

As the pandemic forced millions more to stay at home and venture online, Ms Achiume studied the relationship between emerging digital technologies and racial discrimination.

She said that while there are social scientists who study the racialized and xenophobic impacts of emerging digital technologies, the human rights discourse on this has not kept pace.

One aspect of his research is facial recognition technology and the ability of devices to recognize certain physical traits more easily than others.

“Studies show us that the ability of advanced technologies to recognize black and brown faces or women is much lower than recognizing white male faces,” she said.

This motivated Ms. Achiume to broaden the conversation to ensure that when we think about how human rights apply to emerging digital technologies, we don’t just think of privacy or freedom of thought. expression, but also equal access for people of all races and genders. expressions.

“Equally important, and perhaps from my perspective, even more important, is equality and non-discrimination and how these technologies are advanced. “

Power in Youth

When asked what advice she has for young people when it comes to navigating the toxic environment that has led to more intolerance and hate speech online, she humbly pointed out that young people were more than capable of shaping their own future.

So, in general, when I think about where the change is going to come from, I think it’s going to come from the young people. Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume

“When it comes to revolutionary change, it is always led by young people because they are less invested in the status quo. So in general when I think about the origin of the change, I think it will come from the young people, ”she said.

“And I think the areas where there is the most hope are the ways in which young people have tried to take over social media platforms, including with the aim of tackling racism and xenophobia.”

The Special Rapporteur has said that hate speech and incitement to online violence are part of the business model of social media giants, and underlined the urgent need to rebuild the model that drives these companies if we are to see a real change in the way social platforms are used.

According to Ms. Achiume, “It’s not just about what you do while you’re on the platform, in fact, it’s really the tip of the iceberg. This is the role that young people can play in restructuring the economic relationships and business models of these companies in a truly meaningful way. “

She is convinced that the moderation of speech is superficial. “We have to redo the companies, if we want to redo the environment, in terms of incitement to hate speech, violence, all those things,” Ms. Achiume concluded.

Human connection

“One thing I try to remember is that progress is never linear,” Ms. Achiume said of her vision for future generations.

Yes, the work we do in the UN is really important. Yes, the work we do in courts or in schools is important, but it is about ways to connect as humans and it involves the media … it involves businesses, it involves all of these actors that shape our sense of belonging and our being in the world. . Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume

“You know, we are not on a teleological journey towards emancipation and freedom and every day we are getting closer. I think you go forward, you go backward, and I think that’s the nature of human beings.

She pointed to two anchors of optimism about what lies ahead – the recent massive protests that have taken place around the world and the rise in demands for climate justice, and said that while she does not believe that racism and the intolerance associated with it will soon disappear, it is possible to reorient deeply rooted discriminatory structures and for this to happen within a few generations, if we all do our part.

“Yes, the work we do in the UN is really important. Yes, the work we do in courts or in schools is important, but it is about ways to connect as humans and it involves the media … it involves businesses, it involves all of these actors that shape our sense of belonging and our being in the world. , she concluded.

Special rapporteurs like Ms. Achiume are part of the so-called special procedures of the Human Rights Council. They work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organization and serve entirely in an individual capacity.


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