28 August 2001


NEW YORK, 27 August (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of the keynote address given in Durban today by the Secretary-General of the Racism Conference and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to the Youth Summit entitled "United to Combat Racism: a Youth Vision":

It is a pleasure for me to address you here in Durban at the closing ceremony of the Youth Summit. I congratulate those who have turned the dream of a Youth Summit into reality: the World Conference Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum Secretariat, the International Youth Committee and the South African Youth Task Team. Without their determination and hard work, we would not be here together tonight.

I look forward to receiving the outcome of your discussions. I promise to read these carefully and to take account of your conclusions as I prepare for the World Conference. One of the ways in which your work here can be carried forward is to make it part of the United Nations Special Session on Children which will take place next month in New York. I will be meeting Carol Bellamy, the head of United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), here next Sunday, precisely to consider how to include the concerns raised here in the programme of the Special Session.

I hope that you have profited from being in Durban. The great advantage of an event like this is that it offers opportunities for young people from different parts of the world to get together, to compare notes and to coordinate strategies. That is one of the reasons I strongly supported the holding of this Youth Summit. But most of all I wanted the voice of youth to be heard in Durban. I can tell from the reports I have been receiving about your discussions that you have, indeed, been addressing the whole range of issues we need to tackle.

This World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance will be different.

As well as tackling deep-rooted and well known forms of racism, it will focus on new forms of racism that have appeared, like racism in the media and on the Internet.

New categories of victims have been identified. As well as the "traditional" targets of racism, xenophobia and intolerance, such as ethnic, national and religious minorities, the Conference will also be focusing on the special problems of refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, Roma, Sinti, Traveller communities, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants in all continents and trafficked persons.

The Conference will also turn the spotlight on people who suffer multiple discrimination. Children, the elderly, women, people living in extreme poverty, often carry a double or even a triple burden because they belong to a particular racial, social, ethnic or religious group.

Racism is not a stand-alone problem. Race or origin can determine access to quality education, job opportunities, the house and the neighbourhood you live in, your right to land, representation and participation in political life and public service, health care and even life-expectancy.

Every country in the world has issues of racism and xenophobia to grapple with. Now is the moment for governments to demonstrate their recognition of this, their understanding that the causes and roots are deep and their collective determination to move the fight against racism and xenophobia onto a new plane.

The objective of the Conference is to have a strong Declaration agreed to by governments -- one that recognizes the damage caused by past expressions of racism and that reflects a new global awareness of modern forms of racism and xenophobia -- and a strong, practical Programme of Action. Every government should go away from Durban committed to a national plan of action to fight racism and there should be a review of whether they have achieved their goals after a fixed time.

The fight against racism cannot be won without the whole-hearted support of young people. South Africa itself is a good example. It would have been impossible to dismantle the apartheid system without the courage of South African youth. They helped change the history of their country.

You are all familiar with the story of Steve Biko who gave his life for the cause of equality and non-discrimination. Here was a young man who became a symbol of resistance to an oppressive regime and inspired millions.

Another young person we should remember today is Hector Peterson, the 15-year old student who died on the first day of the Soweto uprising. He was marching with friends from the Soweto High School against the imposition of Bantu education when police opened fire and he was shot. I visited the memorial to Hector Peterson when I came here as President of Ireland and again last March. On both occasions I was moved by the thought of such a young person’s sacrifice and the example he set for all of us.

We can draw inspiration from many other countries too. For example, next week we will hear from someone whose experience should encourage us all to step up the fight against racism and discrimination. Mariama Oumarou is a 17-year old girl from Niger who was sold as a slave at the age of 15. But she escaped and will be telling her story in Durban as one of the Voices of Victims.

What these young people have in common is that they inspire us. They show us the reality of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance and how they can blight peoples’ lives -- and how it is possible for young people to take a strong stand against these scourges.

During the preparations for the Durban Conference I saw for myself how enthusiastic young people are to support the aims of the Conference. I also saw how they can make their presence felt. It happened at the regional preparatory meeting for the Americas in Santiago de Chile last March. In the middle of the official speeches a young Argentinian woman, Viviana Figueroa, commandeered the microphone from the President of Chile to express the feelings of the indigenous people who were not included in the drafting process. Here is her photo to prove it!

I would also like to welcome the youth delegation from Guyana here, who bravely convinced shops, businesses, schools, sports clubs and the police force to turn their buildings into "race-free zones". We need more initiatives like this as a follow-up to the Conference in order to make the outcome of Durban a reality for everybody. In the June edition of our World Conference Newsletter that focussed on children and youth we described a range of positive initiatives which I recommend to your attention. You can find these -- and lots more information -- on our Web site at

Young people can bring special insights to bear on the issues facing the World Conference because they are particularly vulnerable to conflict and discrimination. Millions of young people suffer discrimination both because they are young and for other reasons -– for example, because they belong to minority, indigenous or refugee groups. The discrimination they face may be because of the colour of their skin, because of their language, religion, or cultural traditions. Just ask South African youth of colour about the uninvited-guest treatment they and their parents often receive when enrolling in educational facilities.

The discrimination young people encounter may be hidden and subtle. Often it is suffered in silence. This can have a profound impact on children’s and young people’s self-esteem and self-confidence. It can cause them to bottle up negative attitudes. This in turn can lead to resentment and negative attitudes building up over generations.

Young people may be preyed on and encouraged to be aggressors themselves. If they grow up in a racist environment, they can turn into racists. If they live in an atmosphere of violence they can be used as weapons of ethnic and racial tension, even wars. They can be used to advocate violence, hatred and destruction against religious or ethnic minorities. Young people have killed and been killed, they have raped and been raped, they have tortured and been tortured –- often on ethnic or racial grounds.

The opposite is also true: if children and young people have role models that act without racial hatred and discrimination, they can themselves become advocates of tolerance and champions of diversity.

You are the people who can decide what world you want to live in: a world divided along the lines of race, gender, national or ethnic origin, or a world in which we all see each other as members of one human family.

You can put pressure on governments and local authorities to implement measures aimed at combating racism.

You can take practical initiatives at the local level wherever you see racism at work.

You can encourage open and frank dialogue about racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. This Youth Summit is proof that young people take the issue of racism seriously. The discussions on your report cover many issues and will ensure that the honest and determined voice of youth will be heard not only in Durban but far beyond.

You can champion respect for difference. I am glad to hear that in your meetings the point was made that our aim should be more than tolerance -– it should be respect for and celebration of difference.

Racism and intolerance thrive on ignorance and fear. You can bring to bear open minds, new ideas and unique perspectives. Your energy, dynamism and openness to change bring us hope that you can succeed where previous generations have failed to find solutions.

We can all play our part to advance the struggle against racism, intolerance and bigotry. I don’t want this to be a Conference of words and promises. I want it to be a real breakthrough in attitudes and strategies to combat racism. The World Conference should act as a catalyst for action-oriented initiatives at the local, the national, the regional and the international level that fully involve youth in anti-racist activities. I know that youth caucuses have formed around the world and that national, subregional and regional youth conferences have taken place in all the continents in preparation of the World Conference. I met with many of those involved during the preparatory phase. I encourage you to follow up on this process, to monitor progress made in the fight against intolerance and to be pro-active by using these platforms to promote ethnic diversity.

Today I would like to urge all of you present here: "spread your wings" and build a global network of youth organizations and leaders committed to combating racism. Take advantage of your stay here in Durban to exchange experiences and build bridges. Most of you belong to youth organizations or NGOs. You have a central role to play in instilling respect for difference among your peers.

On 21 March last, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I invited young people to "take the pledge" to promote equality, justice and dignity throughout their lives. I would like to repeat it here with you: "As a young citizen of the world community, I stand with the United Nations against racism, discrimination and intolerance of any kind. Throughout my life I will try to promote equality, justice and dignity among all people in my home, my community and everywhere in the world."

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Durban, South Africa
31 August - 7 September 2001