Press Release

Statement by the United Nations Resident Coordinator on the National Human Rights Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

21 March 2022

In South Africa, this year’s Human Rights Month theme, “The Year of Unity and Renewal: Protecting and preserving our Human Rights Gains” – compels us to recognize the credible progress South Africa has made in upholding human rights. 

Pretoria, 21 March 2022:  This year, Human Rights Day in South Africa, comes as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic has exposed stark social and economic inequalities, it has also shown us that a human rights approach to development is non-negotiable and the only way we will end inequality and achieve a sustainable future.

Human Rights Day, commemorated on 21 March, marks the day police in Sharpeville opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid "pass laws" in 1960.

Globally, this day is observed as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination following the Sharpeville massacre, which later resulted in the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965.

The proclamation of the International Day set in motion global solidarity to end racism and apartheid in South Africa and fuelled the transition to democracy in 1994. Last year we celebrated 20 years of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action which was adopted by the World Conference against Racism held in Durban. On this occasion, leaders around the world came together to address the pernicious effects of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. In recognition of this journey and more recent events that have compelled the international community to address this form of discrimination and listen to those affected, the 2022 theme for the International Day is "Voices for action against racism."

In South Africa, this year’s Human Rights Month theme, “The Year of Unity and Renewal: Protecting and preserving our Human Rights Gains” – compels us to recognize the credible progress South Africa has made in upholding human rights. Today, all South Africans are free to exercise their democratic rights. There have been considerable improvements in access to education, health care, education, employment opportunities and participation in key economic sectors.

Yet as we celebrate these critical advances, we must acknowledge that much needs to be done to realize the vision of a truly equal and free society envisioned in the Constitution and use the opportunity of the International Day to address the ills of racism and other related intolerance.

As we take stock of the progress and challenges in securing human rights for all, we can galvanize our COVID-19 recovery efforts around the following actions:

Ending all forms of discrimination and exclusion is a first critical step to tackle deep seated and structural inequality. The pandemic has disproportionately affected certain marginalized groups including racial, national or ethnic minority communities.

Discrimination of any kind fuels intolerance, violence and stalls progress in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. We see it displayed in the persistent gender-based violence, racially motivated crimes and attacks against foreign nationals, asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons. Addressing the root causes of irregular movement, racial and gender bias, and harmful stereotypes is a way of effectively addressing these injustices.

Secondly, we must reduce economic and social inequalities. South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world - ranked first among 164 countries in the World Bank’s global poverty database. The legacy of colonialism and apartheid, rooted in racial and spatial segregation, continues to reinforce inequality of outcomes. Ending inequality by adopting a human-rights based economy where resources and opportunities are shared fairly must be the cornerstone of our socio-economic recovery from COVID-19. 

Thirdly, we must continue to encourage and invest in the full and equal participation of all members of society including people who experience racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance, young people, older persons, women, people living with disabilities, LGBTQIA, people living in rural areas, refugees and migrants. These are the same groups that will disproportionately feel the impacts of the enjoyment of their rights. We must listen to their voices as we develop solutions to addressing their concerns. We must also protect and stand in solidarity with those who are working to defend their rights.

The principles of equality and non-discrimination remain at the heart of human rights today, just as they did in 1960 when hundreds gathered to demand dignity and freedom. 

Meeting present and future challenges and achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development therefore requires each of us to make a commitment to human rights for all.

As we enter this period of recovery, the United Nations stands with the people of South Africa and their Government to build forward better for a more equal, inclusive and sustainable society.

Zeenat Abdool

Zeenat Abdool

Communications Officer

UN entities involved in this initiative

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
International Labour Organization
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 Children’s Fund
United Nations Industrial Development Organization
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
World Food Programme
World Health Organization

Goals we are supporting through this initiative