The United Nation’s Role in Combating Racism and Discrimination: 7 Recommendations for Greater Effectiveness

Minji Ko, Sanskruti Majmudar, Laura McCreedy, and Amanda Waldron
October 21, 2021

In September, the world turned its attention to the United Nations for the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), where global leaders discussed and assessed progress toward resolving some of the world’s most pressing issues, even as the very principle of multilateralism was being challenged. In the 1960s and 70s, in spite of similar geopolitical tensions as today, the General Assembly came together in a show of international solidarity to adopt a number of historic measures to combat apartheid, colonialism, and racial injustice, including designating 1971 as the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. Despite significant progress over the past fifty years, however, structural racism and discrimination remains one of the most pervasive issues affecting countries across the world.

The mass protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd in 2020 have, again, put racial justice at the forefront of the global agenda.  In response to calls for the UN to investigate racially motivated police violence, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in June on systemic racism and human rights violations against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies. The groundbreaking report sets forth an agenda for “transformative change,” including the mandating of an independent expert to investigate police practices. It also calls on States “to show stronger political will to accelerate action for racial justice and equality.” 

The OHCHR report and its renewed attention to the UN’s founding principles of equality and non-discrimination, inspired the commissioning of a study by the International Peace Institute (IPI) and our team of researchers at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) to take a closer look at the various tools available to the UN in combating racism and discrimination. Through an examination of seven historical and current case studies—from apartheid in South Africa to discrimination against the Uighurs in China and police violence against Black Americans in the United States—the report assesses the effectiveness and impact of the range of UN mechanisms that engage on issues of racism and discrimination, including fact-finding, awareness raising, declaratory, legal, and enforcement mechanisms.

Though often only one of many actors, the UN can play an integral role in the global fight against racism and discrimination by helping to raise awareness around issues, improving coordination across international mechanisms, investigating, monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, and pressing for legislation and accountability. Across our cases, we found human rights-based approaches, including the recent OHCHR report and the work of the numerous independent human rights experts with thematic or country-specific mandates which report to the Human Rights Council, the so-called Special Procedures mandate holders, to be particularly effective in bringing to light cases of systemic discrimination, shaping public opinion, and providing member state with guidance on reforms. In addition, the human rights treaty bodies of the UN have played an important role in monitoring compliance of member states with relevant international human rights law and in adjudicating cases of discrimination.

While the UN has a long history of working to advance the global agenda on racial justice and equality, a number of challenges have often inhibited progress. Among the most significant challenges are geopolitical dynamics in the Security Council, as well as the lack of political will and compliance of member states with their obligations under international human rights law. There is also a need for greater UN and regional coordination, as a lack of cohesiveness and differing strategies of engagement can significantly undermine and weaken the effectiveness of the mechanisms available. Lastly, a lack of data on systemic discrimination, local capacity constraints, and insufficient resources for UN human rights mechanisms to fulfill their respective mandates have also significantly limited progress.

Today, there is a significant opportunity to advance the fight against structural racism and discrimination, especially if UN actors are able to overcome these challenges. We offer seven recommendations to make the UN a more effective actor in this field.

1. Work to overcome geopolitics and sovereignty constraints

In order to facilitate constructive international engagement and cooperation, influential member states should lead with humility on the international stage, including speaking openly about their own domestic shortcomings on racism and discrimination. Rather than leading alone, states should leverage coalitions to advance stalled or polarized issues to overcome geopolitical constraints and local diplomacy to overcome sovereignty barriers.

2. Strengthen compliance with and implementation of international human rights treaties

UN actors should urge member states to sign onto and fully implement the core international human rights treaties. Steps should also be taken to harmonize treaty body jurisprudence, and with regional organizations, facilitate convergence in international approaches to human rights law. Underutilized mechanisms should also be promoted, such as inter-state complaints procedures that allow for a State to submit a complaint to a Treaty Body about alleged violations committed by another State.

3. Improve implementation and coordination of mechanisms within the UN system

To improve system-wide decision-making and coordination across the UN, human rights mechanisms, including the Special Procedures mandate holders and treaty bodies, should meet and exchange information regularly to mitigate discrepancies in reporting country-specific violations. UN Country Teams, that include all the UN entities working on sustainable development, emergency, recovery and transition in 162 program countries around the world, should also have dedicated capacity to respond to cases of discrimination.

4. Support member states with technical assistance and building local capacity

UN agencies should work to provide member states with sufficient resources and technical assistance to implement UN-led recommendations and action plans. The UN should also increase support for civil society organizations to strengthen existing capacities of local partners and link community-based efforts to broader initiatives as part of the Call for Inclusive Global Governance.

5. Improve data collection, measurement, and transparency

UN agencies and bodies should encourage member states to increase systematic, disaggregated data collection and promote standardized guidelines around census surveys.  The UN should also fund the development of an independent international index on equality, which could include indicators from the Sustainable Development (SDG) framework

6. Mainstream and re-prioritize equality and non-discrimination across the UN system

Creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) unit within the UN Secretariat and platforms within interagency processes, such as the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), could further institutionalize and prioritize the UN’s work in advancing equality and non-discrimination and to assist with mainstreaming these issues across the UN through dedicated resources and programming.

7. Rebalance priorities across the UN pillars with a greater focus on human rights, including equality

The UNGA should work to rebalance the regular budget to increase funds for the human rights pillar, which currently receives only 3.5% of the total budget. To this end and in line with the Common Agenda, which calls for measures to address discrimination and promote greater inclusion, the Secretary-General should use his influence to re-prioritize the UN’s work around advancing equality and non-discrimination.

While structural racism and discrimination remains one of the most pervasive issues confronting countries around the world, the UN High Commissioner’s report observes that “there is today a momentous opportunity to achieve a turning point for racial equality and justice. In recognition of its founding principle of promoting and protecting the fundamental human rights of all people, the United Nations is again called upon to meet this moment in history, as the General Assembly did fifty years ago. Whether member states rise to the challenge will depend on whether world leaders are able to demonstrate the political will and solidarity to enact the changes necessary for advancing the global agenda on racial justice and equality.

Read the full report on Columbia SIPA's Capstone page.

About the Authors:

Minji Ko (MPA ‘21) focuses on the nexus of international development, gender, and communications. She works on innovative communications around the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.

Sanskruti Majmudar (MIA ‘21) studied international security policy, specifically focusing on conflict resolution, humanitarian affairs, and peacekeeping at SIPA and works on UN General Assembly issues at the US Mission to the UN.

Laura McCreedy (MPA ‘21) specializes in international conflict resolution, preventive diplomacy, conflict analysis, political economy, and peacebuilding. She is currently working at SIPA and as a research assistant at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

Amanda Waldron (MIA ‘21) specialized in peacekeeping and the African Sahel during her time at SIPA. She works in national security for the U.S. government.