For the first time ever, the UN has charged a woman with investigating and tackling the worldwide problems of racism and xenophobia. That woman is Tendayi Achiume, who became Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in November 2017. Her role is to look into the issues worldwide, visiting specific countries and reporting back with solutions and best practice ideas to the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council.
Achiume is an Assistant Professor at UCLA’s School of Law – a post she will continue to hold throughout her mandate, in addition to teaching at an international human rights clinic – and has spent much of her academic career researching issues around refugees and international migration. She has looked, in particular, at how the problem of xenophobic discrimination relates to the growing global movement of people. Throughout her academic work, Achiume has not shied away from critiquing the approach of the UN and other international organisations on these themes, pointing to the problems and limitations she perceives in the global anti-xenophobia campaigns and regime.
Now, she’s on the inside. In one of Achiume’s first public interviews in the position, Apolitical spoke with her about the role she believes the UN Rapporteur should play in today’s world and about her ambitions for the mandate.
In the past, you have argued that the fight against xenophobia should be domestically driven, as international condemnation can add fuel to the fire and risk drawing attention to the very minorities that need protection. So what do you see as the role of the UN Special Rapporteur in today’s world?
I really do believe in the value of global norms and campaigns. I think there’s immense value in having enforceable law at the international level that sets a baseline for how people should be treated everywhere.
At same time, I believe in law that is connected to people’s lived experiences. When I graduated from law school, my first job was representing refugees and migrants, so I come to the work from that perspective.
What often happens is that well-intentioned global campaigns make a lot of sense in Geneva, but may not resonate when they hit the ground. Though xenophobia and racism are global problems, they’re rooted in very specific local contexts.
“A message of ‘love one another’ that doesn’t address the structural issues, the political issues … can be explosive”
To give you a concrete example, a lot of the work around anti-xenophobia has focused on promoting tolerance and respect for one another. These are things that I think are really valuable and believe in – but in the parts of the world with the highest levels of xenophobic contestation, a message of “love one another” that doesn’t address the structural issues, the political issues, the socio-economic issues, the perceptions about marginalisation, that kind of messaging can be explosive.
I think that what will help leverage the impact of global norms is having conduits between global policymakers in Geneva and people on the ground: survivors and those threatened by human rights violations, civil society actors, government officials… And not just those on the ground in Europe, but civil society in Zimbabwe, in Brazil, in Bangladesh – everywhere.
I see the special rapporteur as being one mechanism through which that gap between the global and the local can be closed a little bit more, and I see myself as a conduit in that respect.
What do you hope you will be able to accomplish?
That’s really hard to answer, for lots of reasons. Firstly, for the first six months at least, I view my biggest job as being to learn, to listen to stakeholders, and to create channels of communication among the civil society and state actors I listen to.
“I definitely don’t think I’m going to end racism or anything that would be a reasonable goal relative to the problems that we have”
It’s also hard because I’m more process-oriented than outcome-oriented. That’s the nature of working in human rights: when I wake up in the morning and ask myself what I think I’m going to accomplish, I definitely don’t think I’m going to end racism or anything that would be a reasonable goal relative to the problems that we have. So, I think a lot about the processes, about the institutions within the mandate that will allow for that conduit function I mentioned to be live and valuable.
Then I have goals to do with the theoretical perspectives that inform my work. I’m committed to a structural approach to solving human rights problems: when I think about discrimination or intolerance, I’m not only thinking about specific acts by individuals that intend to discriminate – I’m thinking also about the structures that bring about those kinds of acts and the structures that have a disparate impact on people because of their race or ethnic group. So I really would really like for the mandate to take seriously the question of how global norms, policies, and regulations can really deal with structure.
You are the first woman in the role – an incredible achievement. What do you see as the significance of gender in racism and xenophobia? Will you focus on the intersectional nature of discrimination?
I think it’s critical. I’ve received lots of warm wishes from people who are thrilled I’m the first woman in this role, as I am too, but I cannot shake off this feeling of sadness that we’re still in a world where it’s remarkable and noteworthy and has to be celebrated.
I think there’s no way to make sense of discrimination without taking an intersectional approach. Xenophobic and racial discrimination both affect women very differently to men. Even the way that racial discrimination affects cis women and trans women is incredibly different, and that means that solutions have to be very different.
I know that when I look at any problem there’s just no way that I’m not going to be thinking about the gender implications, they are just so live to me because of who I am and the work I’ve done.
“Life is just structured by gender and marginalisation”
I was once doing fieldwork in South Africa at the Zimbabwean border where there was lots of migration, including undocumented people fleeing Zimbabwe. The groups claiming refugee status through the formal structures were all men and boys – it was so striking. I remember asking an NGO person – “where are the girls and women?” They said they use different routes and face different vulnerabilities; their migration paths are completely different, often involved with smugglers and traffickers in complicated ways. Life is just structured by gender and marginalisation.
What do you see as the geographical distribution of the problems of racism and xenophobia – are these mainly issues in Europe and the Global North?
To my mind, these are pervasive issues – the very first work I did on xenophobia was in Southern Africa. But, even in the academic literature, the focus is Europe and North America. One reason is that many people have a very narrow conception of race as skin colour. So, some people think issues of racism are minimal or non-existent in populations where everyone has the same skin colour – like Zambia is predominantly black.
If you look at the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, its definition of racism is very broad – it includes discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, colour. And I think it’s vital to tell a story about discrimination and intolerance that is truly global and doesn’t only focus on Europe, otherwise it does a disservice to survivors of human rights violations and people at risk.
I would like civil society organisations working on ethnic discrimination – say in Mozambique or the Philippines – to realise that the Special Rapporteur on Racism is a mechanism they can take advantage of.
At the same time, I think it would be helpful if more countries outside of Western Europe were eager to accept that these problems exist and would be willing to have the Rapporteur’s presence.
What specific issues are you going to focus on during your tenure? What should the world’s attention be brought to?
Next year, UN member states are negotiating two agreements: the global compact on migration and the global compact on refugees. It seems important for the mandate to insert itself in these conversations.
So, my thematic reports to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly are likely to focus on the intersection between racism, xenophobia and related intolerance on the one hand, and migration on the other.
“Any work that takes seriously questions of difference has to confront the ways technologies of mobility are making the question so much harder”
Issues to do with migration and the way people move are putting a huge amount of pressure on many different social problems; any work that takes seriously questions of difference has to confront the ways technologies of mobility are making the question so much harder. And all the predictions show that people are only going to be moving more – questions of difference are not going anywhere.
Part of the role of the rapporteur involves looking at “best practices” – do you already have ideas for what types of solution you think can work to combat difference-based discrimination?
The global and UN systems for dealing with xenophobia really prioritise the nation-state and national bodies, but if you think about the context of migration, it’s local government actors that are on the frontlines dealing with how people move and how they live together side by side.
I think it would be highly beneficial to find ways to involve other levels of government in global processes. Can we look to cities and learn from the ways they promote integration, or the ways that they struggle to deal with xenophobic conflict? So, in terms of solutions, I will be focusing on institutional ways to connect the global to the local. For example, bringing together local government actors in Botswana with actors in Berlin to learn about how to integrate large numbers of refugees.
One existing mechanism I think is important is that the mandate accepts communication from people who are worried or impacted. [If you are concerned about human rights violations relating to racism and related intolerance you can raise the issue to the Rapporteur here.]
(Picture credit: Flickr/United Nations)