The Fight Against Racism: the Hardest of Battles for Human Rights

Author: Cardinal Roger Etchegaray


Cardinal Roger Etchegaray

Cardinal Etchegaray speaks at Round Table prior to World Conference Against Racial Discrimination

Mrs Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, organized a Round Table in Geneva on 3 August inviting a group of eminent persons in preparation for the World Conference Against Racial Discrimination, scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September. As is well known, this Conference is causing a stir inmany countries, and the UN has played a leading role in the fight against every form of racism. Racism is a serious failure to observe what the founding document of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, lays down for all the members. The fight against racial discrimination has been the subject of many international texts, such as the 1965 Convention, but today still needs a renewed civil commitment. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray was one of the nine members of the Eminent Persons Group Round Table. Here is a translation of his address, which was given in French.

Many thanks to Mrs Mary Robinson for having invited me to this Round Table as a prelude to the World Conference Against Racism, symbolically scheduled to be held in Durban, South Africa, whose tender scars, left by the apartheid, show just how low contempt for man can sink. As a witness of such horror and shame on all the continents for the last 15 years, what can I say to you now in five minutes?

We are in an age when the most obvious assertions need to be publicized, proclaimed, and even loudly broadcast if they are to make an impression. So it is with racism. One does not compromise with it, one flushes it out from beneath its camouflage and tackles it head on. One can never sufficiently crush this evil, which never ceases to rise from its ashes; for if its name is finished by having been discredited, the reality of racism, behind its various masks, is more rampant than ever. What is the explanation for this persistence after so many vigorous and generous campaigns of the UN, the Churches, and many NGOs?

Racism is a gaping wound which remains mysteriously open in humanity's side. Today, on account of the widespread plague of racism, the antiracism of the past seems barely appropriate. One has to revive its convictions, but one has to expand its arguments and even change the target. Analysts have gone so far as to say that racism has its twin in a certain form of anti-racism: it is a form of militancy which, far from undermining it, aggravates it. The very notion of racism needs to be used carefully, and to categorize every kind of unjust conduct in the same category risks diluting it.

A debate on racism cannot brush aside past history. One cannot brush aside with the back of one's hand, as one does an annoying mosquito, the crimes of a past that is stained by disgust for man, to the point of denying the human being. This memory is necessary in order to enlighten and guide the present on the path of justice, but it should not become a source of constant intimidation. No one can remain a prisoner of his past, however burdensome it may be. The memory can recover just as well as the body; it is called to let itself be purified and not manipulated. "Repeated killing for revenge must be replaced by the liberating freedom of forgiveness", says Pope John Paul II (Message for New Year 1997), who invites us to offer a "just reinterpretation of history ... this is a real challenge at the pedagogical and cultural levels as well, a challenge to civilization!".

Today in a study of racism, one cannot merely observe the movements of men and peoples, but also the functioning of states and nations, above all when a nation tends to become the supreme measure of its citizens by identifying itself with a single ethnic group. Furthermore, John Paul II teaches us, "History has shown that when states are no longer equal, people themselves end up by no longer being equal. Thus the natural solidarity between peoples is destroyed, the sense of proportion is distorted, the principle of the unity of mankind is held in contempt" (Address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, 15 January 1994).

After the discovery of the New World, the great question that arose and was the subject of a knowledgeable "disputatio" was "Tell me who a man is? Do Indians have a soul?". Today, travelling across the world, who could claim that this question is not just as pressing and strange? Modern man hesitates before the goal posts that are being moved or knocked down, he begins to doubt himself and the anti-racist fight gets bogged down. This fight is like a persistent combat; it is doubtless the hardest of all the battles for human rights. Its goal is the fundamental equality of all human beings, and this is a sort of challenge of the mind against nature, for men are more partial to differences than to equality. To recognize that the other person, with his differences, is truly my equal is a difficult task that has, however, infinite consequences. There is nothing less natural than saying: "every man is my brother" and living this brotherhood, especially when the Bible reveals our pedigree with the account of Cain and Abel: we are all descendants of a criminal fratricide.

As a man of the Church, it is more of a spirit than a programme that I wished to entrust to you. In her fight against racism, no one can be reduced to their racist character alone, however obstinate this may be. He too is "my brother"! The Gospel gives each person an opportunity to extricate himself from the impasse of racism. The Church is deeply aware of the past and present failings of certain of her members: but all racial discrimination is at the opposite pole to her Christian faith, and full respect for others goes far beyond being resigned to tolerance as though to an inevitable trial.

Mrs Mary Robinson, my prayers accompany your team to Durban, so that the World Conference, for which you are responsible on behalf of the United Nations, may be a true sign that all men and women, from the first to the fourth world, are called to enter together into the "All-World" to live there in freedom and happiness. In a book published by UNESCO more than 30 years ago (The Right to be aMan), itsdirector at the time, René Maheu, punctuated his preface with these words: "However great the efforts made, the progress achieved, however heroic his countless sacrifices, the price of the free man has not yet been paid by man, nor has its just value even been defined.... At this very moment, millions of human beings, our fellow creatures, overwhelmed or outraged, are waiting for us, you and me".

You and me

...From Geneva to Durban.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 August 2001, page 2

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