UNESCO Series of Regional Expert Consultations against Racism and Discriminations. 6th edition: Arab Region

Good morning to one and all.  It is with pride that I am involved in this sixth series of Regional Expert Consultations against Racism and Discriminations.  This is the last one. We have had consultations in all the regions around the world.  We have had Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, North America  and this is UNESCO work looking at the way racism and discrimination are expressed.  There has been an increase in such sentiment over recent times.  It is our pleasure that you agreed to be part of this exchange of knowledge so that we can see how we can take action.  Welcome to our speakers,  Mr Omar Fassatoui, Mr Charles Harb, Ms Khawla Ksiksi, Ms Nadia Meflah, Ms Saadia Mosbah, and our Moderator, Mr Béchara Al Ghaoui. 

Racism and discrimination is not new to UNESCO.  This is central to our role and central to our mandate to promote peace in the minds of men and women.  We have a very interesting basis to build up the knowledge and try to pass strong action against racism, starting with the seminal work by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s regarding race that established no superiority of any race going to our Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice in 1978, and our programmatic activities like the Slave Route Project, the General History of Africa, the Master Class Series against Racism and Discriminations and the work of the International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities, so we have a vast display of activities and reflections to counter this evil.  We also are launching a Recommendation of Ethics of Artificial Intelligence that is really trying, among other things, to avoid that the discriminatory actions and the biases that we have in the analog world are not translated into the digital world.  We are also trying to move ahead not only in terms of what we know but also on what the world of the future will be if it is based on more tolerance and more understanding. 

Racism and discriminations have been a prevalent issue in our history.  It is not something new, but we know that the COVID crisis has made it really visible. It is indeed shocking that, depending on the color of your skin, depending on your gender, and depending on where you come from you may have more chances to be alive or not, to have access to health services, to have access to education, to  have access to internet that will enable you to continue teleworking, ultimately, to be able to cope with the impact of the pandemic.

Discrimination in the Arab region is also prevalent.  It takes shape in a variety of forms and has affected the different aspects of society – spanning from the dimensions from everyday life to work-related practices and legal frameworks.  We know that anti-black racism is widespread in many Arab nations and it affects both migrant communities and Arabs of Sub-Saharan African descent. We are proud to hear that Tunisia adopted the law on the elimination of all forms of racial discriminations. This is also a platform to try to change good practices of what have worked and what have not.  But black communities are not the only victims of racial and structural discrimination in the Arab world as this phenomenon also affects other minority groups.  It comes to acts of injustice, oppression and categorization directed against a group of people that has to do with “race” but has also to do with religion and sectarianism is present in the region, which has continued to divide religious communities and that has really paved the way for discriminations and violence.

And what about women? Discrimination against women is prevalent all over the world.  COVID has been a magnifier of all the vulnerabilities that women experience in their lives and the lack of support systems when this kind of shocks happen.

The Arab region unfortunately remains among the lowest performing across the world in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index.[1] Gender-Based Violence including domestic violence, rape and other forms of sexual assault, sexual harassment, child and forced marriage, continue to prevail in the region.  Moreover, the ILO data in this region show that women spend almost 5 times more hours than men on unpaid care and domestic work, especially related to child-rearing.[2]  This has to do with stereotypes and role modeling of what is good for men and what is good for women.  It is reflected in the labor market.  The rate of female labor force participation in the region is the lowest in the world at 18.4%.  It is not only bad for women, but it is also bad for the economy because governments have invested in the education of girls and then they do get the returns for this investment as women are no table to contribute to the economic growth and development.  The global average for women participation is 48%, which is very low but still in the region you even have less than half of the global indicators.  For the women that are already in the labor force, only 11% hold managerial positions which is lower than the average of 27% and the political participation is also very low.  In Congress, it was 18% in 2017, the second lowest globally.  All of this is threatened by the fact that by 2010 only 59% of women over 50 years were literate.  They have increased their rate of participation in education, but it is still low by international standards.  

In addition to this gender-based racism and discrimination, migrant workers again suffer from other forms of discriminations as they are often excluded from labor law protections.  This is true in many countries and of course, the fast-growing countries in the region attract a lot of labor migration when the protection is not there, and the abuses are also widespread.  Migrant women, who are usually employed as domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable. The victimization of migrant women continues to abound.  Despite the ban on slavery, slave descendants in some countries still continue to face racism and discriminations.[3]

Structural discrimination against refugees including those from Arab countries, is another important issue which highlights the limitation placed on the enjoyment of several important rights.[4] The Arab region together with Turkey is home to more than six million refugees and over 10 million internally displaced people fleeing violence.  Many countries in the region must be commended for being generous enough to host these refugees but again they also face a lot of discrimination. 

The context is somber, but there are also some positive signals about progress made in some domains. I, myself was pleased to support the Minister of Gender of Tunisia when she repelled the laws that impeded women to become privy to heritage and eliminate laws that will force victims of rape to marry their aggressors. Morocco has set up an Intergovernmental Commission to fight human trade, and the International Organization for Migration provided assistance to officially reported victims of this crime. Within the Maghreb countries, awareness raising campaigns have also been positively received. Many civil society organizations have continuously and strongly advocated for inclusion and non-discrimination and progress in the legal framework has also been achieved in many countries. 

But we should address forcefully the downsides of this story. We cannot accept  prevailing trends of racism and discrimination– UNESCO will not accept. 

That is why we want to bring your knowledge, we want to bring your insights and we are being called by our Member States on how we can upscale the efforts and bring innovative solutions and help the world move away from these discriminatory practices.  A great debate is wished upon you all.  There is a lot that will be learned from you.  This is the closing session and we close with great speakers and inspiration.  It is our hope that we will be able to build something meaningful to address this challenge that we all confront.

Thank you so much.


[1] Global Gender – Gap Report 2018

[2] ILO World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2019 

[3] Data from the UNESCO’s Rabat office

[4] https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon

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