UNESCO renews its commitment to fight racism and discrimination at the Gwangju Forum

For the second time in a row, UNESCO co-hosted the 11th World Human Rights Cities Forum, in Gwangju, South Korea, from 7 to 10 October 2021. under the theme “Human Rights in Times of Challenge: A New Social Contract”. At this occasion, UNESCO launched three groundbreaking initiatives to be implemented in 2022 in the region, in collaboration with the Gwangju Metropolitan City, lead city of the Asia-Pacific Coalition of Cities against Discrimination (APCAD): a Master Class Series against Racism and Discriminations, an Art-Lab pilot for cities and a Social Inclusion/Human Rights Marker System in Asia-Pacific. These initiatives all aim to foster inclusive urban development and community building.

During the Opening Ceremony, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, emphasized that cities experiencing new challenges play a central role in building the future and moving forward together. UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, called for a new social contract to rebuild public trust through human rights protection and promotion.

UNESCO also organized six panels including

a plenary session on the theme “The Role of Human Rights Cities in Fighting Racism and Discrimination”,
an interactive panel with the International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities – ICCAR on “Solidarity and resilience at the heart of cities’ actions in the context of COVID-19”,
a panel of the Asia-Pacific Coalition of Cities against Racism (APCAD) led by UNESCO’s Regional Office in Bangkok, and
individual panels dedicated to the three abovementioned initiatives.
The effects of the pandemic were felt most sharply in cities through lockdowns, fundamental changes to urban life, the stress on healthcare systems, the changes to workplaces, inter alia. Cities were uniquely positioned to establish innovative ways of addressing these issues, which were shared during the forum’s panels. In the Plenary Session, we heard from each panelist about innovations and policies undertaken to support local communities:

Commissioner Ted Terry of DeKalb County, Georgia (USA) outlined an educational support initiative in DeKalb that brought mobile WiFi hotspots to various neighborhoods, increasing the equity of access to remote learning. Commissioner Terry also emphasized the importance of action, recognizing that we have been a part of the largest protest movement in modern time through Black Lives Matter and other movements, and that politicians are being called to take bold action for significant change;

Director of International Relations Fabiana Goyeneche of the City of Montevideo (Uruguay) shared how Montevideo mobilized to protect some of the most vulnerable populations of lockdown measures including women, children, adolescents and LGBTQ communities by extending hours and expanding social services provided as support to survivors of domestic violence, child sexual abuse and other hate crimes;

Professor Gyonggu Shin, Senior Advisor for Human Rights & International Affairs of Gwangju (Republic of Korea) spotlighted Gwangju’s exemplary small number of COVID-19 cases through a commitment to provide free healthcare to all city members, regardless of their immigration status, therefore demonstrating the success of attention to health outcomes. Professor Shin also explained the effects that political and cultural movements have had on modern democracy, and while noting that this pandemic has divided us more than ever before it has also created the space to grow through civil movements;

Deputy Mayor of Heidelberg Stefanie Jansen (Germany) informed of a new Anti-Discrimination Officer appointed to the Office of Equal Opportunities in Heidelberg, focused specifically on combatting racism. Highlighting the emphasis the City has placed on learning and unlearning the history of colonial roots in Heidelberg, they have established a new educational center which allows citizens of all ages to engage with this topic;

And Mayor Lianne Dalziel of Christchurch, New Zealand, who summarized the essence of the forum by inviting us to unite in community, reconnect and reflect as a call to change:

Listening and opening the space for dialogue with citizens and non-citizens alike, as well as community members, has been a key factor in the creation of policies that have worked towards addressing the pandemic. Thematic to these sessions was the critical attention to intersectionality in local policies, therein to take on a human rights perspective in policy creation that serves to define cities as anti-racist and anti-discriminatory.

In protecting people during this major event, we learned that there are opportunities for many innovative solutions. UNESCO makes a strong call for cities to continue innovating to deliver better for its people. As we continue towards the finish line of the COVID-19 pandemic, we challenge cities to refrain from returning to the previous way of life, and instead to continue innovating to provide for and defend their people. As we saw in these panels, protecting people was at the heart of cities’ initiatives during the crisis; as we continue efforts to vaccinate global citizens, we call upon cities to continue innovating to further protect their populous in this manner.

UNESCO’s partnership with the Gwangju Metropolitan City is part and parcel of the anti-racism efforts that UNESCO is undertaking to build the Roadmap against Racism currently being developed. This will include an analytical project to strengthen institutional and legal frameworks against racism and discrimination, an integrated anti-racism toolkit that will provide practical methods to help institutionalize comprehensive considerations of antiracism in the design and revision of public and private policies and strategies, advocacy campaigns and policy dialogues with city members of the Inclusive Cities network.