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Guide to the Law - The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

Race Race Discrimination
Friday 14 December, 2012

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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
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.

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”.

updated 22 August 2002.