Conflicts in Countries
& the Security Council

  Racism and Religious Intolerance

by Robert Bergner

Peace is not just the absence of war. It is about our day-to-day relationships with our families, our neighbors, people in our towns and cities and in other countries. Peace is also how we cope with people different from ourselves.

Harvey Gilman
A Portrait of Friends

The following is a report on the United Nations’ response to global racism and religious intolerance. It has been compiled predominantly from United Nations documents as, for the most part, UN agencies were unable or unwilling to provide information through direct contact.

Racism and religious intolerance today: a sketch

Humanity divides itself into myriad factions along fault lines of race, color, religion, caste, sex, age, ability, country of origin and language. From each of these fissures, in turn, the poisoned waters of hurt, oppression, injury and death bubble forth.

A few blocks south of United Nations Headquarters in New York, on a three hundred yard stretch of East River waterfront, the day-to-day realities of racial discrimination and oppression in the United States reveal themselves in mute, if not silent, living tableau.

The Water Club Bar and Restaurant occupies the southern end of this cultural portrait. A converted barge floating on the East River, this swank establishment attracts a well-to-do, sharply dressed, overwhelmingly white clientele. The handsome women and men who greet those customers are white. The men who haul the garbage bags from the kitchen in the rear are Hispanic. The man who vacuums the floor is African-American. A dinner at the Water Club costs at least $50, enough to feed a person in New York City for a week

At the north end of this particular length of riverfront is the 34th Street Helicopter Pad. Those who can afford the fare pay $595 -- enough to house a person for a month – to fly from Manhattan to La Guardia or Kennedy airports. Partakers of this service are almost exclusively white and male. Women and people of color are not prohibited from using this service, they just don’t.

In between the restaurant and the helicopter pad is a series of wooden benches which have become home for several African-Americans. One man has done some furnishing and decorating. He has a chair, a cassette player, a cardboard box cum mattress, an umbrella, an industrial size roll of toilet paper and a large poster of a smiling child. Perhaps the photo reminds him of his daughter, or his sister. Perhaps it just reminds him that, somewhere, gentler, sweeter lives exist. He sleeps under the stars and wakes to the river breeze. It’s kind of like camping…except for the ubiquitous urban grime, the constant passers-by and the ear-splitting roar of the helicopters.

Throughout the world, as though the product of some diabolical Hall of Mirrors, the same disfigured, disfiguring face of racism is reflected in thousands of grotesque permutations. On a mountain ridge overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Arab laborers haul buckets of cement in searing desert heat. They are building yet another multi-million dollar, air-conditioned house for an Israeli doctor or lawyer. In Morocco, Palestinian delegates to a world youth conference physically assault a female Israeli delegate. An essay contest in Latvia encourages racial discord within that nation, publishing statements like these: “Aliens are the cancer tumor of Latvia.” And, “They do not have any right to live in Latvia, their human rights in Latvia simply do not exist.” In the Goldfields region of Western Australia, Aboriginal youth are arrested by police at a rate eight times higher than non-Aboriginal youth.

From these fairly tame, if troubling, images, the face of racism around the globe grows uglier, darker, increasingly violent and, ultimately, murderous. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, an entire Afro-Canadian community – homes, churches, businesses -- is razed to the ground by bulldozers in the middle of the night. Garbage trucks haul away what remains of the inhabitants’ belongings. Residents of defunct Africville receive no more than a few hundred dollars each in compensation. In the town of Belem, Brazil, soldiers drag a black policeman off a public bus and beat him severely, assuming, because of the color of his skin, that he is illegally impersonating a police officer. In Solingen, Germany, four German youths set the home of a Turkish family on fire. Three children and two adults die.

Moving upward on the intensity scale of racially inspired violence, single words suffice to evoke the many recent instances where racial hatred and xenophobia have led to mass murder on a soul-numbing scale: Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, the Holocaust. And, in what is at once the most surreptitious and the most deadly – if perhaps unintentional - genocide in human history, the wealthy, western nations of the world remain nearly inactive while tens of millions of Africans die of HIV/AIDS. The western nations have the means to control and curtail the effects of this pandemic – furthermore, they may not be entirely free from guilt regarding its causes -- yet they withhold necessary aid. One can only wonder if they consider Africans both unworthy of assistance and, in some way, deserving of their fate.

Religious intolerance and dogma have similarly lost little of their tragic impact in recent decades. Certainly, the Holocaust and the genocide in Bosnia had strong religious undertones. The wars that are now raging – in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Asia, Sudan, Palestine -- between some Muslim sects and their various “opponents”, including other Muslim sects, are fundamentally, if not exclusively, religious wars. The US invasion of Iraq, with its ostensible rationale (among several others) to bring freedom, free business markets and democracy to the Iraqi people, can be understood as a religious crusade. The western concepts of democracy, free market capitalism and personal freedom, are, after all, irrevocably interwoven with the development of Calvinism and its sister Protestant traditions. In Sudan, Arab Muslims rape, starve and kill African Muslims, gruesomely enacting the confluence of religious and racial hatreds. Violence between Muslim and Christian factions in Indonesia is frequent and deadly. On Indonesia’s Maluku Islands alone, 9,000 people died in the last decade of the twentieth century due to inter-religious strife. Back in Africa, the HIV virus spreads freely through the population because, in no small part, some religious teachings forbid the use of the most obvious and easily obtainable forms of prevention. In sum, people are harassed, abused and murdered around the globe every day on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Moreover, discrimination based on caste, often the result of religious dogma on impurity, condemns millions of people to humiliation, poverty, suffering and death. This practice persists in many countries in South Asia, the Orient and Africa. In India, caste discrimination perpetuates widespread hunger, homelessness, forced labor and violence. According to one report, last year, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, an upper-caste boy and a lower-caste girl where dragged to the roof of a house and hung for refusing to end their inter-caste relationship. This lynching took place before hundreds if spectators. In Japan, a list was recently compiled of Buraku communities. Members of these communities are viewed as impure and the list allowed hundreds of corporations to weed the Buraku out of hiring processes.

Hatred, Violence and Children

As with so many of the plagues besieging humankind today, racial, religious and caste hatred and violence take an inordinate toll on children and young people.

Highly sensitive to the emotional and psychological content of their surroundings, children are especially vulnerable to the devastating effects of discrimination on the human personality. Faced with omnipresent attacks on their essential humanity and worthiness, their self-confidence is undermined. They learn hopelessness. They frequently acquire ineffective, destructive coping strategies and may become deeply withdrawn or dangerously aggressive. Suicide rates among indigenous youth in Canada are as much a five times higher than the national average. Young blacks are incarcerated at up to 25 times the rate for young whites in parts of the United States. (Of course, this latter statistic may have as much to do with discriminatory justice systems as it does with the behavior of the young persons themselves.) The development of youthful intellectual powers is hampered by inappropriate and insufficient learning materials and resources, as well as the blatant withholding of educational opportunity. At a basic level, learning – like all manner of personal growth -- is impeded by fear.

It would be extremely difficult to appraise and disaggregate statistics on worldwide poverty, hunger and disease, analyzing them, first, for accuracy and, second, for their sources in racial and religious hatred and discrimination. There is no doubt, however, that each year millions of children suffer starvation and severe malnutrition; millions of children suffer and die unnecessarily from preventable and treatable disease; and millions, perhaps billions, of children live in abject poverty.

At the same time, each year, western nations destroy and horde enough food to feed every hungry person on the planet. If hungry Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and Indigenous People were white, would they be fed?

Drugs which can limit and reduce the effects and spread of HIV/AIDS trickle onto the African continent where 30 million adults and 3 million children are infected with this deadly disease, where 14 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Nearly 800,000 children were infected with HIV/AIDS in 2002. Almost all of these infections resulted from mother to child transmission. This appalling rate of transmission, a death sentence to the innocent, could be reduced by more than half with appropriate treatment. UNAIDS estimates that 2 billion additional condoms are needed each year in Sub-Saharan Africa to effectively contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Would these prevention and treatment resources be provided if this pandemic were spreading rapidly through North America or Western Europe rather than Africa?

Child labor is one of the many grinding, life-destroying millstones of poverty. Tens of millions of children throughout the world are forced to work for pennies a day in brutal conditions in order to assure their own survival and the survival of their families. To satisfy the demand for cheap child labor and for easily exploitable child sex workers, over a million children are trafficked each year. Would a white, North American allow his child to quit school to work in a sneaker factory twelve hours a day? Do white North Americans buy shoes for their own children which are made in those same factories? They do.

Warfare -- one of the ugly progeny of racial and religious hatred -- like its evil sisters disease and poverty, strikes children hard. Children are terrorized by warfare in the fullest sense of that word: Their homes, families and communities are destroyed. Their parents are killed or wounded even as they are killed, maimed and wounded themselves. They are forced into the perpetual flight, displacement and degradation of the refugee. They are raped and conscripted into armies which encourage and require them to commit acts of unconscionable atrocity. In his book, In the Land of the Magic Soldiers, Daniel Bergner relates the story of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. The boy is about fifteen years old at the time of the events depicted.

“I chook em,” he said as he described - in Krio, in perfectly straightforward tones – how his boys had held the peacekeeper on the ground, how he’d rammed his bayonet into the base of the man’s throat, and how he’d yanked the blade downward across the body, ripping open the chest and belly. “For me bobo he wen kill, I killah, pull de livah. I take de dead livah, de heart. I boilah. Chop dat,” he said, using the Krio word for eat, and next a word for malign willfulness: mind. “’You have mind,’” he recalled holding the liver over the man’s face. “’This your mind.’”

The United Nations responds?

“La ONU trabaja para poner fin al racismo” reads a poster on the wall at the NGO Section of the United Nation’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “The UN works to end racism.”

Several UN documents do address the issue of racism. The UN Charter itself pledges member states to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women…and to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expands this theme:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The word “everyone” appears several dozen times in the Declaration, underscoring that the rights stated there are not to be denied any person for any reason.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child goes a step further in specifically applying these fundamental rights to children:

Principle 1: The child shall enjoy all the rights set forth in this Declaration. Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights, without distinction or discrimination on account of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, whether of himself or of his family.

Principle 10: The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.

Furthermore, the UN Commission on Human Rights has appointed two Special Rapporteurs for each of the two areas “Freedom of Religion and Belief” and “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.” These four rapporteurs have produced excellent, detailed reports to document their investigations. Among many other topics, Rapporteur Abdelfattah Amor’s reports speak of the subjugation of women in Islamic Algeria and of the hate violence perpetrated against Jews in the United States. According to Mr. Amor, 80% of the religiously oriented hate crimes in the US are directed at Jews. Rapporteur Maurice Glèlè-Ahanhanzo, whose reports are among the most informative and most readable of any produced at the UN, tells of anti-Islamic attacks in Sweden; of an eight hour riot between white and Asian factions in Bradford, England; of racial oppression in Tibet. Mr. Glèlè-Ahanhanzo includes in his reports government responses to charges of racial discrimination and abuse which have been brought against them. These exchanges of accusation and reply are fascinating.

Finally, in 2001, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) organized the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Though besieged by discord regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the nature of Zionism, the Conference did produce a document entitled Declaration and Program of Action. This document urges national governments to “to promote and protect the human rights of victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” It encourages states to develop educational programs “aimed at the eradication of racism.” It urges them to “adopt and implement laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin at all levels of education.” A pamphlet on the OHCHR says that, as follow-up to the Durban conference, that office “will work with UN agencies, regional human rights organizations, governments, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations fighting racism.” The OHCHR, says the pamphlet, is “spearheading the implementation of a global campaign against racism and xenophobia.”

Sadly, as with many other UN projects, the UN anti-racism effort seems to stop at implementation. There appears to be little, if any, practical implementation of a campaign against racism either on the part of the OHCHR, or of the UN in general. There are many programs which address the results of racism – peacekeeping, food distribution, conventions on disarmament, debates on the protection of civilians during armed conflict, disease and poverty eradication programs, aid for refugees, etc. – but few which address its causes. (This apparent inactivity may be due, in part, to the fact that racial and religious hatred most often brew and boil within the confines of a state, thus rendering them outside the officially sanctioned influence of the UN.)

The poster in the NGO Section office may say that the UN is working to end racism, but exactly how it is doing so is not clear. To even find someone to speak with on the topic of UN policy and programs related to racism, either at the UN or among the NGO community, is all but impossible.

Three exceptions to this dearth of constructive UN racism-related activity are the Conference on Anti-Semitism which was held on 21 June 2004 at UN headquarters, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World, a UN wide initiative overseen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO).

The first of these ventures, the Conference on Anti-Semitism, was a one day event which afforded participants in this large, mostly Jewish assembly an opportunity to express their fears, concerns and hopes. The session was opened by UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan who reiterated his ongoing call for inter-racial, inter-religious and inter-cultural harmony. The Secretary-General was followed by Elie Wiesel who lamented the fact that such a conference should be necessary sixty years after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Highly diverse panel members then offered their thoughts on this age-old, extremely divisive issue. Pursuant to this gathering, the UN may undertake a series of similar conferences, including events to address the issues of discrimination against Islam and Christianity.

The UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues met for a third time this year in New York City. Concentrating on women’s issues, the Forum provided a platform from which some of the world’s most disenfranchised people could speak to the international community. (Please see the attached report for more information about the Permanent Forum.)
The International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010) is a little known initiative which seeks to address the root causes of world problems “through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations.” Foremost among the initiative’s eight action areas is Education – education for non-violent conflict resolution and education to “promote mutual understanding and remove bias or stereotypes.” (Please see attached report for a brief overview of the Decade for a Culture of Peace.)


Although the series of conferences investigating discrimination based on religious affiliation may be the only one of the three above mentioned programs specifically designed to confront and combat racial and religious hatred, all three have anti-racism/religious hatred components and would be well worth participating in.
The Anglican Observer’s Office currently has a healthy presence at the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues. Recommendations for further involvement in Indigenous issues are included in the attached report on the Permanent Forum.

If the UN does sponsor follow-up conferences to the Conference on Anti-Semitism, the Observer’s Office might want to participate in one of the panel discussions. This would be an excellent opportunity to publicly highlight the Anglican Church’s commitment to tolerance, to the inherent oneness of humankind and the interdependence of all creation.

The International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World is an excellent initiative which deserves infinitely more attention than it is presently receiving. Because it seeks human-sized solutions to conflict and violence, rather than inter-governmental policy solutions, this initiative offers real hope for change. Moreover, the Decade has correctly perceived that education is the key to changing attitudes and behavior. Unfortunately, the Decade is hardly known in the UN community and is almost entirely unknown outside of that small circle. Perhaps, encouraged by St. Paul’s assertion that God is strongest where we are weakest, the Anglican Church ought to offer the Decade its assistance. Given the low level of worldwide Decade activity, an offer to take on the promotion of anti-hatred (pro-caring) education as the Church’s contribution to a lasting culture of peace would probably be quite welcome. Under Secretary-General Anwarul K. Chowdhury, who was unfortunately unavailable at the time of the writing of this report, would likely prove a valuable contact for such an enterprise.

Some of the material in this report is taken from the following UN documents: The Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference Against Racism, The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, UNESCO Mainstreaming the Culture of Peace, International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World, 2001-2010 (2003), Report on Racism, Racial, Discrimination, Xenophobia and all forms of Discrimination (2002), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations, UNAIDS Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic (2002), Africa’s Orphaned Generations (UNICEF) and Human Rights (OHCHR), Civil and political rights, including freedom of expression (1998) and Civil and political rights, including the question of religious intolerance(2002). Information has been taken from the websites of Health Canada and Human Rights Watch, from the article We Have to Be the Change by Emily Freeburg and from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. Also cited is the book In the Land of the Magic Soldiers by Daniel Bergner.


Published by the Anglican Communion Office ©2002 Anglican Consultative Council