International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

The United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed with a series of worldwide events on 21 March every year. Proclaiming the Day on 26 October 1966, the General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination (resolution 2142 (XXI)).The date of 21 March was chosen to commemorate that day in 1960 when police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid ‘pass laws’.

Since those earlier days, the UN observes there has been progress:

… the apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. Racist laws and practices have been abolished in many countries, and we have built an international framework for fighting racism, guided by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Convention is now nearing universal ratification, yet still, in all regions, too many individuals, communities and societies suffer from the injustice and stigma that racism brings.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted on 21 December 1965 and entered into force on 4 January 1969.

2017 theme: Racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration

Every year the International Day is held under one specific theme. The theme in 2017 is Racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration.

Racial and ethnic profiling is defined as ‘a reliance by law enforcement, security and border control personnel on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin as a basis for subjecting persons to detailed searches, identity checks and investigations, or for determining whether an individual is engaged in criminal activity’ according to a report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism of 20 April 2015.

Refugees and migrants are particular targets of racial profiling and incitement to hatred. In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted in September 2016, United Nations Member States strongly condemned acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against refugees and migrants, and committed to a range of steps to counter such attitudes and behaviours, particularly regarding hate crimes, hate speech and racial violence.

Campaigns and events

The UN is promoting the following campaigns and events in relation to the International Day:

Together is a United Nations initiative to promote respect, safety and dignity for refugees and migrants. It was initiated during the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants on 19 September 2016.

Stand up for someone’s rights today is a campaign launched by the UN Human Rights Office on Human Rights Day, 10 December, 2016. It aims to: encourage, support and amplify what you do in your everyday life to defend human rights.

The Week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination begins on 21 March each year. It was first established as part of the Programme for the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination adopted by the General Assembly in 1979 (A/RES/34/24).

To commemorate the 2017 International Day, on 17 March the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva held a debate on racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration. In New York. there will be a General Assembly plenary meeting in observance of the International Day, on 21 March 2017.

Australia’s action

In Australia the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) was a landmark in race relations. The Act was a legislative expression of a new commitment to multiculturalism and it reflected the ratification by Australia of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

As the first Commonwealth legislation concerning human rights and discrimination, the Racial Discrimination Act set an important precedent. As described by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at a ceremony for its proclamation in October 1975, the Act was ‘a historic measure’, which aimed to ‘entrench new attitudes of tolerance and understanding in the hearts and minds of the people’.

Since 1999, 21 March in Australia has also been celebrated as Harmony Day. Timed to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Harmony Day is dedicated to celebrating Australia’s cultural diversity. Harmony Day events are supported by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and each year a wide range of community sporting and cultural organisation have held events including sporting activities, food festivals, dance and music performances  or simply bringing people together to talk and share stories.


While Harmony Day has shifted Australia’s commemorative focus to the more positive celebration of cultural diversity and racial harmony, the UN International Day with its focus on the prevention and eradication of racism is still relevant. Australia has continuing challenges regarding racial abuse and discrimination, evidenced for example by the disproportionate incarceration rates for Indigenous Australians, the current Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory and the treatment of asylum seekers in detention centres both onshore and offshore.

Parliament too, has more recently been involved in a debate on whether racial vilification laws impose unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and the Joint Standing Committee on Human Rights has recently completed an inquiry into free speech and Australia’s laws against racial vilification. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s view, which was also supported by the majority of submissions to the Committee, is that ‘the laws against racial vilification have served Australia well over the last 20 years in sending the message that racial abuse will not be tolerated in our multicultural society’. Ultimately, there was no consensus from the Committee on whether any reform was necessary and, for the moment, the laws remain as they are.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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