UN’s truth-teller on racism, xenophobia and intolerance sees signs of hope, amid COVID quagmire and rising hate speech
She is outspoken, candid, and speaks truth to power. She is known to lecture governments and tell them how to improve their track record on xenophobia, racism, racial discrimination, and all forms of intolerance.
Tendayi Achiume is the half-Zambian, half-Zimbabwean professor of human rights at UCLA (The University of California, Los Angeles) and holds a key independent role within the UN human rights system, as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, to note her official brief in full.
This year, she has been playing a key role in the follow up to the 20-year-old Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DPPA), aimed at stamping out racial injustice and inequality, across the world, at a time when COVID-19 has helped exacerbate hate speech, and fan hatred and fear, in all its forms.
UN News caught up with Professor Achiume and asked her how she saw the stresses and strains of a world reeling from the pandemic, and its exacerbating effects on intolerance, racism and racial discrimination.
Her most recent report to the UN General Assembly underscores the importance of the landmark Durban Declaration, to finally eradicating racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance.
She views the Durban framework as a ‘groundbreaking instrument’ for human rights principles, with priorities still relevant twenty years after Member States first adopted this anti-discrimination agenda in South Africa, and says that while racism manifests differently across societies, none of us are free from the effects.
To hear our full conversation with Ms. Achiume, listen here to our latest special edition of The Lid is On, along with other in-depth coverage surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration, on our Durban Sketches page.
Racism and COVID-19
Looking back at the 18 months since COVID-19 began sweeping the planet, Ms. Achiume highlighted the international racial justice uprisings the world witnessed in 2020, beginning with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and sees this as a watershed moment in the global pushback against systemic racism.
The UN expert described the widespread protests this summer as “a period of hopefulness” adding that outcries for racial justice could trigger “political will, momentum among UN Member States, to really take seriously some of the complaints all over the world.”
Despite these mass demonstrations of solidarity, Ms. Achiume voiced concerns about the persistence of structural forms of racism and xenophobia. In countries across the world, she explained that inequality during the pandemic is evidenced by challenges largely impacting racial, ethnic, and national minorities or groups that are marginalized, with unequal access to care during the biggest global health crisis of our time.
“Transnationally, what people have described as vaccine apartheid, the allocation of access to vaccines, is dramatically different depending on whether you’re in the Global North or the Global South,” Ms. Achiume said.
The Special Rapporteur said there are signs of hope for a future free of racial hatred, but acknowledged a deep complexity in the state of racism today.
The global dialogue
One of the challenges in taking on her brief, is confronting the different expressions of racism from country to country.
“How racism is characterized in the United States is very different from how it might be characterized in Singapore or in the United Kingdom or in Morocco or wherever it might be,” Ms. Achiume said. “That’s not to say there isn’t discrimination or intolerance, but the way it operates and manifests, is very different.”
Ms. Achiume told UN News that recent events have unified international dialogue on related issues.
“One thing that changed since the last time we spoke, and I mentioned this after the murder of George Floyd, there was a way of thinking and talking about racism and in some places, even xenophobia,” she said, acknowledging that people “of all races, ethnicities, genders out on the streets”, were demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd in the US and far beyond.
The UN expert also stressed the far-reaching harm caused by discrimination, explaining that “there is nobody who is not impacted by racism, xenophobia and all of these structures.”
Ms. Achiume’s journey from her birth in a small Zambian town, to teaching university-level law and defending racial equality, was not based on calculation.
“I spent most of my life thinking that I would be a doctor or an engineer or something like that. I've always been interested in human beings and making the world one that is a more enjoyable place to live for everybody,” she said.
"I think it was while I was in college, in the US actually, when I took a class on law and development policy that I became really fascinated with law as a tool for social change,” Ms. Achiume added.
“At the time, the human rights frames seemed like the most appealing for making sense of human suffering and for fighting back against that,” she continued.
Racism and emerging technology
As the pandemic forced millions more to stay at home and venture online, Ms. Achiume studied the relationship between emerging digital technologies and racial discrimination.
She said that while there are social scientists studying the racialized and xenophobic impacts of emerging digital technologies, the human rights discourse around this hasn't kept pace.
One aspect of her research is facial recognition technology and the ability of devices to more easily recognize certain physical traits over others.
“Studies show us that the capacity of leading technologies to recognize black and brown faces or women is so much lower than recognition of white male faces,” she said.
This motivated Ms. Achiume to broaden the conversation to ensure that as we think about the way human rights apply to emerging digital technologies, we're not just thinking about privacy or freedom of expression, but also equal access for people of all races and gender expressions.
“Equally important and maybe from my perspective, even more important, is equality and non-discrimination and the way that these technologies are being advanced.”
Power in youth
When asked what advice she has for younger people when it comes to navigating the toxic environment that has led to more intolerance and hate speech online, she humbly pointed to youth as being more than capable of shaping their own futures.
So, in general, when I think of where change is going to come from, I think it's going to come from the youth. Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume
“When it comes to revolutionary change, it is always led by youth because they are less invested in the status quo. So, in general, when I think of where change is going to come from, I think it's going to come from the youth,” she said.
“And I think the areas where there is the most hopefulness is the ways in which young people have attempted to appropriate social media platforms, including for the purposes of pushing back against racism and xenophobia.”
The Special Rapporteur said hate speech and incitement of violence online is part of the business model of social media giants, and highlighted the urgent need to rebuild the model driving these corporations if we are to see real change in the way social platforms are used.
According to Ms. Achiume, “It's not just about what you do while you're on the platform, in fact, that's very much the tip of the iceberg. It's what role can young people play in restructuring economic relations and the business models of these corporations in really meaningful ways.”
She is convinced that moderating the discourse is superficial. “We have to remake the corporations, if we're going to remake the environment, as it relates to hate speech incitement, to violence, all of these things,” Ms. Achiume concluded.
“One thing that I try to remember is that progress is never linear”, Ms. Achiume said of her outlook for future generations.
Yes, the work we do within the UN is really important. Yes, the work we do within courts or within schools is important, but it is about ways of connecting as humans and that implicates the media…that implicates corporations, that implicates all of these actors who shape our sense of place and being in the world. Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume
“You know, we're not on a teleological journey towards emancipation and freedom and every day we're just getting closer. I think you move forward, you move backwards, and I think it's the nature of human beings.”
She pointed to two anchors of optimism about what lies ahead - the recent massive protests that took place around the world, and the uptick in demands for climate justice, and said that while she does not believe racism and related intolerance will wither away soon, it is possible to reorient deeply-embedded discriminatory structures and for it to happen within a few generations, if we all do our part.
“Yes, the work we do within the UN is really important. Yes, the work we do within courts or within schools is important, but it is about ways of connecting as humans and that implicates the media…that implicates corporations, that implicates all of these actors who shape our sense of place and being in the world,” she concluded.
Special Rapporteurs like Ms. Achiume, are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. They work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve entirely in their own individual capacity.