In the black township of Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Afrikaner police open fire on a group of unarmed black South African demonstrators, killing 69 people and wounding 180 in a hail of submachine-gun fire. The demonstrators were protesting against the South African government’s restriction of nonwhite travel. In the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, protests broke out in Cape Town, and more than 10,000 people were arrested before government troops restored order.
The incident convinced anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela to abandon his nonviolent stance and organize paramilitary groups to fight South Africa’s system of institutionalized racial discrimination. In 1964, after some minor military action, Mandela was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. He was released after 27 years and in 1994 was elected the first black president of South Africa.
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination commemorates the Sharpeville massacre -- the horrific killing of 69 people peacefully demonstrating against apartheid in South Africa.
The apartheid regime was based on institutionalized racial discrimination.
It was ultimately – and thankfully – consigned to history on the release from prison and accession to the presidency of Nelson Mandela, whose centennial we mark this year.
The memory of Sharpeville lives on in this annual UN observance, when we reaffirm our unequivocal rejection of all forms of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.
Sadly, these attitudes persist in countries and among communities around the world.
A stark and tragic example lies in the egregious treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
It is time all nations and all people live up to the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human race.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of that landmark document.
We have made considerable progress since it was adopted.
People around the world have gained greater freedoms and equality.
Conditions of profound economic misery and exploitation have been improved.
Women’s rights have advanced, along with the rights of children, victims of racial and religious discrimination, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities.
And perpetrators of horrific human rights violations have been prosecuted by international criminal tribunals.
But it is also plain that the words of the Universal Declaration are not yet matched by facts on the ground.
In practice, people all over the world still endure constraints on -- or even total denial -- of their human rights.
Gender inequality remains a pressing issue – with untold women and girls facing daily insecurity, violence and violation of their rights.
We are also seeing an alarming rise in xenophobia, racism and intolerance, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred.
Far-right political parties and neo-Nazi viewpoints are seeing a resurgence.
Refugees and migrants are systematically denied their rights and unjustly and falsely vilified as threats to the societies they seek to join, despite the proven benefits they bring.
We still have a long way to go before we end the discriminatory attitudes, actions and practices that blight our world.
So, on this international Day, let us all consider how we can better promote tolerance, inclusion and respect for diversity in all nations and among all communities.
Let us work to eliminate messages of hatred – the concept of “us” and “them”; the false attitude that we can accept some and reject and exclude others simply for how they look, where they worship or who they love.
And let us keep in mind the grave consequences of racist thinking – discrimination, slavery and genocide.
We must always stand up to leaders who spread their toxic vison of racial superiority – especially when they couch it in sanitized language to denigrate migrants and foreigners.
We have to protect our youth from these forces of intolerance and division.
We cannot allow extremist ideologies to become normalized and legitimized in our societies.
The answer is to preach and practice tolerance, inclusion and respect for diversity.
This is achieved through greater debate and openness, and the exchange of different views, experiences and perspectives.
And it is achieved through leadership – the kind of leadership admirably shown by Nelson Mandela.
Leadership that is courageous enough and principled enough to counter intolerance, racism and discrimination in all its forms.
And that is what this Organization stands for.