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The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1966 was one of the first human rights treaties to be adopted by the United Nations (UN). The Convention is widely supported, with more than 156 countries (four-fifths of the membership of the UN) having ratified it. Australia ratified the Convention on 30 September 1975.

What is racial discrimination?

Under the Convention, racial discrimination is where a person or a group is treated differently because of their race, colour, descent, national origin or ethnic origin and this treatment impairs, or is intended to impair, their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

For example, an act is racially discriminatory if a person is denied a service or employment because of his or her race or ethnicity, or when a law or policy impacts unfairly on a particular racial or ethnic group.

The Convention permits distinctions between citizens and non-citizens; but not between different groups of non-citizens.

All human rights in the political, economic, social, cultural and other fields of public life are to be ensured to everyone without racial discrimination. Article 5 of the Convention sets out an illustrative list.

The Convention indicates that there is one type of act, called a ‘special measure’, which is not discriminatory, even though it involves treating particular racial, ethnic or national groups or individuals differently. ‘Special measures’ are initiatives intended to ensure the ‘adequate advancement’ of certain racial groups who require support to be able to enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms in full equality. Special measures are not only permitted by the Convention; they are also required when ‘necessary’.

There are several examples of ‘special measures’ in Australia, including Aboriginal legal and medical services and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). Government support for these organisations is not discriminatory because their aim is to enhance the access of minority groups to justice, cultural expression and other rights and freedoms.

What do States agree to when they sign the Convention?

When a State ratifies the Convention it undertakes:

  • not to engage in any act or practice of racial discrimination against individuals, groups of persons or institutions, and to ensure that public authorities and institutions do likewise
  • not to sponsor, defend or support racial discrimination by any persons or organisations
  • to review government, national and local policies, and amend or repeal laws and regulations which create or perpetuate racial discrimination
  • to prohibit and put a stop to racial discrimination by persons, groups and organisations
  • to prohibit organisations and propaganda that promote racial superiority, racial hatred, racial violence or racial discrimination (note, however, that Australia has submitted a reservation [1] to this requirement and is not fully bound by it)
  • to ensure effective protection and remedies for victims of racial discrimination
  • to take special measures, as necessary, to ensure that disadvantaged racial groups have full and equal access to human rights and fundamental freedoms, and
  • to combat the prejudices that lead to racial discrimination, and eliminate the barriers between races, through the use of education and information, and by encouraging integrationist or multiracial organisations and movements.

The Convention should be read in conjunction with the General Recommendations and Jurisprudence published by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which monitors implementation of the Convention. These assist in the interpretation of the provisions of the Convention and the obligations of States parties.

1. The reservation reads: “The Government of Australia ... declares that Australia is not at present in a position specifically to treat as offences all the matters covered by article 4 (a) of the Convention. Acts of the kind there mentioned are punishable only to the extent provided by the existing criminal law dealing with such matters as the maintenance of public order, public mischief, assault, riot, criminal libel, conspiracy and attempts. It is the intention of the Australian Government, at the first suitable moment, to seek from Parliament legislation specifically implementing the terms of article 4 (a).”

Article 4(a) requires that each of the following be declared “an offence punishable by law”: “all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin, and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities, including the financing thereof”.

Last updated 22 August 2002.