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As part of the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition, the Second Annual Nelson Mandela Human Rights Lecture was held virtually on 14 July 2021.

Former United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Navi Pillay, led a panel discussion consisting of Dr Gay McDougall, former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Ms Edna Maria Santos Roland, Chair/Rapporteur of the Group of Independent Eminent Experts on the Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and Ms Mona Rishwami, Chief Rule of Law, Equality and Non-Discrimination Branch, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The panel, which focused on contemporary forms of racial discrimination, reflected on the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), its achievements and continued challenges. The co-hosts of the lecture were the African Group of Ambassadors in Geneva and the South African Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

Ambassador Professor Muhammadou M. O. Kah, Gambian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva & Chair of the African Group of Ambassadors in Geneva delivered the welcoming remarks while Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi, South African Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva, made the closing remarks. Prof Frans Viljoen, Director of the Centre for Human Rights, delivered the vote of thanks.

This year’s edition of the Nelson Mandela World Moot Court Competition had participants from 39 universities, hailing from over 20 countries, representing the five UN regions and covering three language groups – English, Spanish and French.

The World Moot is organised annually by the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and the Academy of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the American University in Washington. This year, a further partner – the Commonwealth Secretariat–- came on board. The World Moot is made possible through the assistance of the Global Campus of Human Rights, the Permanent Mission of South Africa to the UN, the Regional Office in Southern Africa of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Swiss Government.

The panelists took stock of the achievements and challenges arising from the adoption of the DDPA in 2001, and its review in 2009.

Achievements

In general, panelists expressed the view that the DDPA has had a significant impact but also cautioned that much still needs to be done. Dr MacDougall aptly called Durban a ‘moral re-armament to assist the world in tackling one of the ‘most intractable problems of our time.

Institutional architecture

Over the last two decades, a much more extensive institutional architecture has been put in place within the UN to deal with issues of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Some of the pillars of this architecture are: The Secretary General, acting on a General Assembly resolution, appointed the members of the Group of Independent Eminent Experts on the Implementation of the DDPA. This Group has been tracking and advocated for effective implementation of the DDPA. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) established the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (in 2002), and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues (in 2005), joining the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (established in 1993 under the predecessor of the HRC, the Commission on Human Rights).

The adoption by the Human Rights Council of the “George Floyd” resolution, at its most recent (47th) session, adds to this institutional infrastructure by establishing a mechanism that will specifically focus on racism in the context of law enforcement. All panelists commended this development, and in particular the decisive role of the African Group at the UN. Dr Gay MacDougall emphasized that this architecture will be incomplete without a Forum within which issues of racism and racial discrimination would be discussed on a continuous basis.

State implementation

Many measures were taken by many states. Panelists noted the extent of legal, policy and institutional reform that had been adopted or put in place to align domestic legal systems to the DDPA. At least 42 States reported amending legislation dealing with issues of race; at least 23 States (and regional arrangements) adopted policies curbing race racism; many adopted institutional mechanism and national action plans to curb racism and racial discrimination. A total of 182 states had become party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), making it one of the most widely ratified UN human rights treaties.   

However, panelists lamented the extent of implementation, and the lack of political will on the part of many states to take meaningful action. Dr Navi Pillay noted that there too often is a significant gap between rhetoric and actual action. Ms Mona Rishmawi emphasized that the yardstick against which progress should be measured is whether the DDPA is making a difference in the reality of people’s lives.

OHCHR

The OHCHR also took a number of new initiatives that can be traced back to the impetus of the DDPA. These include technical assistance to states to develop legislation, institutions and policies around the DDPA. The seminal report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (“Promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers”), which was tabled during the 47th session, is another shining example.

Challenges

One of the challenges to the more extensive implementation of the DDPA is the low level of awareness and understanding among the general population. Ms Mona Santos Roland drew attention to the crucial role that civil society has to play in deeper dissemination and wider awareness of the DDPA.  The panelists all emphasised the pivotal role of civil society organisations in garnering political willingness. An informed citizenry is key to bringing to bear pressure on states to enhance the role of the DDPA.

Structural and systemic racism remains one of the biggest challenges. Noting some of the efforts that had been made to deal with this issue, Ms Rishmawi noted the importance of reversing the culture of denying racism; that there has to be greater accountability, which requires domestic mechanisms for effective institutional oversight; and the need to confront the legacy of the past by providing redress taking the form of special and targeted reparations.

The theme of the Lecture was linked to one of the issues that defined Nelson Mandela’s life. Opposing the racially exclusive and abrasive apartheid legal apparatus was at the core of his struggle for equality and dignity of all South Africans. The fact that this struggle culminated in an inclusive legal framework based on equality and non-racialism in South Africa was an important reason why the 2001 Conference against Racism was held in Durban South Africa.