Human Rights Month - Statement by Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas, United Nations Resident Coordinator to South Africa

Whilst we forge lessons learned from this pandemic, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution are a beacon of hope and prosperity.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and is observed annually on 21 March.  The commemoration follows from the Sharpeville massacre when South African police opened fire, killing 69 people and injuring hundreds more at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid "pass laws" in 1960. When South Africa attained its democracy in 1994 it proclaimed 21 March as Human Rights Day.

The concurrent commemoration of Human Rights Day in South Africa and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination provides an opportunity to renew our commitment to human rights and anti-racism. “Youth standing up against racism” is the 2021 theme for International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in recognition of the contribution that young people have and are making to the global fight against racial prejudice and intolerant attitudes.  In South Africa, the theme for human rights month is the “Year of Charlotte Maxeke: Promoting Human Rights in the Age of COVID-19.”

The Constitution of South Africa, which enters its 25th anniversary this year, is the foundation of the country’s democracy, which reaffirms the values of human dignity, equality and freedom. It takes inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties, and is globally revered for its inclusivity and progressive approach to human rights.

Whilst we forge lessons learned from this pandemic, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution are a beacon of hope and a blueprint for prosperity.  We also pay tribute to Charlotte Maxeke, a human rights stalwart who fought for freedom and the emancipation of women. Her legacy is indicative of how far South Africa has come in promoting human rights for all. We must anchor our efforts and commitment for change in the people of this rainbow nation and those that fought for justice and freedom.

In South Africa, the pandemic has exposed a number of societal ills such as gender-based violence, corruption, poverty, inequality, disparities in education, water and sanitation, and unemployment, as well as the extent to which key populations are being left behind.

Our collective call to action is: 

First, to end discrimination of any kind. Like pre-existing conditions that make individuals more fragile, gaps in respecting human rights have made societies more vulnerable. If anyone is at risk, everyone is at risk. Discrimination, exclusion and other human rights violations harm us all.

Second, to reduce widespread inequalities. Universal social protection, universal health coverage, and other systems that deliver fundamental rights are not luxuries. They keep societies standing and can shape a more equitable future.

Third, to encourage equal and full participation, especially from young people, persons with disabilities, the homeless, migrants, refugees, women, girls, frontline workers and older persons, to name a few. All voices have a right to be heard.

Fourth is to increase and intensify our resolve and efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, a concrete Agenda for universal human rights.

The United Nations stands with the people of South Africa, civil society, and the Government in meeting these challenges.

The only way we can overcome this crisis is if we all stand up for human rights.



Written by
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
Resident Coordinator
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
UN entities involved in this initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
International Organization for Migration
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
United Nations Population Fund
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
United Nations Information Centre
United Nations Children’s Fund
United Nations Industrial Development Organization
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
World Health Organization