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 173 countries (four-fifths of the membership of the UN) having ratified it (June 2010).

What is racial discrimination? The International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (article 1) does not define "race" but it does define "racial discrimination" to mean "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life." Ethnicity is explicitly subsumed under this definition by the term "race". Most human rights treaties simply refer to "race" and do not use the terminology of "ethnicity".

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

Racial and ethnic discrimination continues to be a major human rights problem in the world today facing both minority and sometimes even majority populations. Much of the early focus of international attention was on apartheid in South Africa which came to an end in 1994. However, the struggle against ethnic and racial hatred has continued with the decade of the 1990's being riven with some of the worst ethnic conflicts the world has ever seen in the Balkans and the Great Lakes region in Africa.

Race is defined as "a group of people of common ancestry, distinguished from others by physical characteristics such as hair type, colour of eyes and skin, stature etc". (Collins English Dictionary) Ethnic is defined as "relating to or characteristic of a human group having racial, religious, linguistic and certain other traits in common". (Collins English dictionary)

In international human rights law the term race is generally used in a broader sense and often blurs with other distinctions between groups of people based on religion, ethnicity, social groupings, language and culture. The term "race" in human rights law is sometimes used to encompass groups which may not fall into distinctive biological racial groupings, for example caste systems in India and Japan.

What do States agree to when they sign the Convention?
* 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
* 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 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) monitors the compliance of States parties with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. CERD is composed of 18 independent experts who are elected for terms of four years by the State parties to the Convention. The Committee meets twice each year at the United Nations in Geneva.

All States Parties (or States) are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how they are implementing the Convention. These are known as periodic reports. States must report initially one year after acceding to the Convention and then every two years.

The Committee also monitors the implementation of CERD through the additional three mechanisms:

The early warning/urgent action procedure is a process included in the Committee's regular agenda which aims to prevent potential violations of CERD from arising or turning into conflicts as well as to respond to problems requiring immediate attention to prevent or limit the scale or number of serious violations of CERD. Australia was placed under this procedure in 1998 in relation to amendments to the Native Title Act and other issues. State-to-State complaints are complaints dealt with by the Committee where one State alleges that another State is not upholding its obligations under the CERD. To date, no State party has initiated such proceedings. The Convention also includes an individual communications process. After exhausting domestic complaints procedures and legal avenues, individuals or groups may apply to have their complaint examined only if the State being complained about has accepted the optional complaints procedure.  

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