Belfast is not the race hate capital of Europe, a leading international human rights expert said today.
Despite a number of high profile attacks on the Chinese, Indian, and Eastern European communities in Belfast, Chris Sidoti, who is chairing the North’s Bill of Rights Forum, disputed claims that it was any more racist than other European cities.
“I have heard stories but I would be very loth to call anywhere a race hate capital,” he said.
“This is an unfortunate characteristic of a large number of societies that everybody is grappling with.
“Certainly it is a standard experience that when the ethnic composition of communities change and particularly change rapidly you do get inter-ethnic tensions. You do get expressions of racism.
“There is no point in denying or refusing to use the word racism because that is precisely what it is.
“I would be surprised if Belfast was the racist capital of Europe. I think there are places in Europe where there are far more nasty and far more prolific expressions of racism than what we find here.
“But there are people here who have told me they have found experiences of racism. As understandable as that may be, it is totally unacceptable.
“Again a Bill of Rights can make a difference in making a society develop positively with all of its diversity because it is able to ensure protection of the identities and cultures and humanity of all of its elements.”
Mr Sidoti said the Bill of Rights must protect the rights of all people including the gay, lesbian and bisexual community who have also been the victims of homophobic violence and harassment.
“This will have to be addressed. There is no doubt that human rights law extends to protect the rights of all people,” he said.
“Gay men and lesbians are as much entitled to human rights protection as anybody else anywhere else .
“That has been recognised including societies that are far more traditional than this society.
“The Constitution of South Africa provides protection and equality and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – not just on the basis of racism.
“Yet that is a far more traditional society than this one.
“I think one difficulty – and this is perhaps a controversial thing to say - in the kind of polarised community that we have here is that there tends to be almost a time warp.
“The world lives on and a fragmented society stays frozen. It is like Rip Van Winkle waking up after a long sleep.
“Part of this conflict, this polarisation is a clinging to attitudes no matter how unacceptable they may be that are being challenged elsewhere.
“Each time I come here I can see a society that is starting to unfreeze, that is waking up to the same challenges and issues as other parts of Europe.
“Sometimes after being asleep for a long time, it can be painful to be brought awake again but I think we will see in the churches and certainly broader society the same kind of free thinking, challenging of past attitudes.
“To take an example no Christian church can be supportive of murder, rape, violence, torture based on sexual orientation. Something as basic as that sometimes need to be said as baldly as that for people to say: ’Yeah, this is a much bigger issue. It isn’t just about what are the moral norms within our particular tradition.’