International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 

No to racial discrimination, even in times of war and pandemics.

Since 1966, every 21 March has been commemorated as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, established by the United Nations in remembrance of the massacre in Sharpeville, South Africa. Last year, Pope Francis defined racism as “a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding.”

Andrea De Angelis - Vatican City

Sometimes racism expresses itself in silence. The eloquent glance that does not conceal a discriminatory attitude. Words then merely reinforce this lowest concept of the human race. Every year on 21 March, we celebrate International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. With the pandemic and more than one war going on - Ukraine, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen - this day takes on special significance. 

What happened 62 years ago?

The day is celebrated every year on this date to remember what happened on 21 March 1960 in South Africa. At the height of apartheid, the police opened fire on black demonstrators, killing 69 and wounding about three times that number. It was a dramatic episode, indelibly remembered in history as the Sharpeville Massacre. In proclaiming this International Day in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly, in its Resolution 2142, stressed the need for more significant efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. A mission certainly not exhausted. 

Desmond Tutu: the “power of peace” is his legacy

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu

This year the day came less than three months after the death of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on 26 December at the age of 90. A symbol of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. The committee for the world’s most prestigious peace award cited Tutu’s “role as a unifying leader in the non-violent campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa.” Two years later, he became the first black person to lead the Anglican Church in South Africa on 7 September 1986. The Archbishop was a man of peace, a servant of Christ inspired by the African concept of ubuntu, a vision of society that espouses the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. It is essentially about togetherness and how all of our actions impact others and society for the promotion and maintenance of peace. 

The words of Pope Francis 

“Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding and lurks in waiting. Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.” 

Pope Francis with some young African migrants.
Pope Francis with some young African migrants.

This is what Pope Francis wrote precisely one year ago on his Twitter profile on 21 March. No to racism, yes to welcoming migrants. No to nationalism, yes to European values and peace. These were the contents of Francis’ message in his audience with participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in May 2019. “The Church,” said the Pope, “observes with concern the re-emergence, somewhat throughout the world, of aggressive tendencies toward foreigners, types of migrants, as well as that growing nationalism that disregards the common good.” He added, “This risks compromising previously consolidated forms of international cooperation, threatens the aims of international organisations as spaces for dialogue and encounter for all countries on a level of mutual respect, and prevents the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” set by the UN.

Again, in his address to participants at the Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in the context of global migration conference in September 2018, the Pope stated:

We live in times in which feelings that to many had seemed to be outdated appear to be reemerging and spreading. Feelings of suspicion, fear, contempt and even hatred towards other individuals or groups judged to be different on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality or religion, and as such, believed not to be sufficiently worthy to participate fully in the life of society. These feelings, then, too often inspire real acts of intolerance, discrimination or exclusion that seriously harm the dignity of those involved as well as their fundamental rights, including the very right to life and to physical and moral integrity. Unfortunately, in the political world, too, it happens that one gives in to the temptation to exploit the fears and the objective difficulties of some groups and to make misleading promises out of shortsighted electoral interests. The seriousness of these phenomena cannot leave us indifferent. We are all called, in our respective roles, to nurture and promote respect for the inherent dignity of every human person beginning with the family — the place in which we learn from a very tender age the values of sharing, welcoming, brotherhood and solidarity — but also in the various social contexts we engage in.

Absolutely intolerable 

Last June, addressing an urgent debate convened at the UN in Geneva as part of the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, on the topic of, “The current racially-inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful demonstrations,” the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, urged all states to, “recognise, defend and promote the fundamental human rights of every person,” calling “racial discrimination in all its forms absolutely intolerable.” Indeed, “all members of the human family, made in the image and likeness of God are equal in their inherent dignity, regardless of his or her race, nation, sex, origin, culture or religion.”

Archbishop Jurkovič ended his statement by quoting Pope Francis’s words during the General Audience of 3 June 2020: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” he said.


Do not underestimate racism

Father Giorgio Borroni, Director of Caritas Novara, was one of the signatories of a letter on racism that, in 2018, a group of clerics and laypersons wrote to the Italian Bishops urging them to intervene against the spread of an intolerant and racist culture. He stresses how racial discrimination should never be underestimated even in these difficult months that the world is currently undergoing. In times of pandemics and wars, racism should never be considered a secondary problem. 

“The Pope calls us to fraternity, to brotherhood and asks us as a society and as a Church, to meditate on the encyclical Fratelli tutti, which requires us to take concrete and effective steps forward,” explains Father Borroni in response to the question on the importance of the Day, which looks back at what happened in South Africa over half a century ago. “The pandemic has taught us that we are all interconnected in a global emergency, even if the responses have sometimes been discriminatory, and certainly not fair, for example, the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines,” he explained. “Even this war (Ukraine),” observed Fr Borroni, “has generated elements of discrimination and shown us that there exists (in the world) those in the A league and others in the B league. I am also thinking of the many, too many forgotten wars,” he said. 

The PIME event

Numerous events were organised in Italy and worldwide to commemorate this particular Day. One event organised in Italy by the PIME World Education Office offered a free online initiative entitled, Beyond Discrimination - faces and stories: Towards learning together and building a peaceful world.

PIME, which stands for Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, dedicated the day to primary schools to promote the spirit of overcoming discrimination. The initiative, realised with the contribution of Fondazione Cariplo, was held on Monday 21 March from 9 to 10 am on the PIME Centre’s YouTube channel. PIME educators sought to guide young viewers and listeners to reflect on this theme that is always topical. They demonstrated how it is possible to overcome divisions and build a world founded on peace. Subscribers listened to testimonies of Father Marco Ribolini and Father Daniele Criscione, missionaries in Thailand and the United States, respectively. There were also musical performances, videos and activities designed to involve children’s participation. Other activities comprised the music of Daniele Longo, an actor and musician as well as an introduction of the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.



22 March 2022, 11:52