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UN anti-discrimination body extends protection of non-citizens

5 August 2004

Migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers and undocumented residents amongst other ‘non-citizens’ are the subject of new authoritative comments by the UN treaty body charged with tackling racial discrimination. Such groups have long been seen by some states as falling outside of their commitments and obligations under a number of human rights instruments, which are often considered to apply only to the treatment of those who are ‘citizens’ or nationals of the state. The new ‘General Recommendation’ is intended to extend and strengthen the protection of what are often uniquely vulnerable minority groups.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the UN body charged with monitoring state implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), referred both to concerns raised at the Durban, World Conference Against Racism, and its own regular examination of state reports in justifying its new provisions. The body of 18 expert members stated that there is a need to clarify state responsibility on the subject in response to continuing discriminatory, xenophobic and racist practices both by states and by non-state actors including the media. The new principles, which update a 1993 recommendation, result from a thematic discussion held in March 2004, which included the participation of more than 20 NGOs.

The principle of non-discrimination requires states parties to prohibit and eliminate discrimination based on race, colour, descent, and national or ethnic origin. This demands that certain fundamental rights, protection and freedoms are common to all, irrespective of citizenship status, a fact that rights groups have pushed to be reinforced in the light of continuing discrimination. The General Recommendation covers such areas as establishment of appropriate legislative measures in compliance with the Convention, equal protection and recognition before the law, non-discriminatory practice in regard to expulsion and deportation of non-citizens, and in regard to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Important practical recommendations include a call to ensure that officials dealing with non-citizens receive special training, including training in human rights in order to combat ill-treatment and discrimination, and potentially more severe punishment for racially motivated crimes.

In an acknowledgement of a rise in the incidence of hate speech and racial violence against non-citizens, the new recommendation demands that states take ‘resolute action to counter any tendency to target, stigmatize, stereotype or profile’ by actors including politicians and the media. MRG suggests that this should convince governments to pay greater attention to clearly racist and inflammatory political campaigning and media coverage of groups including asylum-seekers and migrants such as the Roma, as witnessed in recent UK press coverage for example. In the UK context, a positive measure would be to strengthen bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which is currently weak in its response to such discriminatory media coverage, stated MRG. Measures taken in the fight against terrorism were also highlighted as cause for concern in a recommendation calling for full compliance with international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law in the treatment and detention of non-citizens.

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) welcomed the new CERD General Recommendation as a valuable additional clarification, which should be implemented by states parties and reported on according to the obligations upon states under the Convention.

Notes for editors

Download full text of CERD General Recommendation on Non-Citizens.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].