Image by thivierr via FlickrDiscrimination based on racial and religious difference has long scarred Europe's social and political landscape.
The confinement and massacres of Jews and the slaughter and slavery in colonial territories defined an Apartheid system which for centuries received cultural sanction and religious indulgence.
The Nazi ‘Final Solution’ was a terrifying 'highpoint' of twentieth century prejudice. The later arrival of non-white immigrants in Europe gave another spur to bigotry.
Though racism and anti-Semitism survive to this very day, they are, by common consent, on the run. Better education, mass tourism, increased opportunities for social integration, marriage, the influence of cultural icons and a record period of peace and prosperity have combined to clear the public arena of overt expressions of prejudice.
This sea change in social attitudes has been accelerated by the increased vigilance of organisations and activists who have forced political and civil society to maintain the offensive against discrimination.
For the past 17 years, the independent European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has been a key partner in this transformation. The human rights monitoring body advises the 47 members states of the Council of Europe on policy measures needed to combat violence, discrimination and prejudice on the grounds of race, colour, language, religion, nationality or national or ethnic origin.
In its comprehensive reports, ECRI examines in each country the legal framework for fighting racism and racial discrimination, its practical implementation, the existence of independent bodies to assist victims of racism, the situation of vulnerable groups in specific policy areas (education, employment, housing etc.) and the tone of political and public debate around issues relevant for these groups.
ECRI counts as one of its most important achievements the adoption of Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This prohibition of discrimination which entered into force in April 2005, ranks as a high water mark in the legal challenge to racism.
The fight against discrimination is not over, of course but the work of ECRI and others has forced racists to adapt to a changed social and political environment. Public declarations of racial prejudice in the virulent terms of the 1960’s and 1970’s are seldom heard. Instead, the basis for intolerance has shifted.
''There has been a move from biological racism to cultural racism,'' an ECRI spokeswoman revealed, highlighting the new frontier in racist discourse.
She also pointed to a trend by governments towards discrimination in the name of integration and reverses of recent anti-discrimination gains, springing from the 'War On Terror,' as significant challenges to social cohesion.
The plight of Roma communities in Europe is another important concern. Already, the organisation has succeeded in gaining traction for its view that 'Roma-phobic' stereotyping is as unacceptable as racism.
''The media is doing good work in explaining the Roma situation with objective reports,'' the ECRI spokeswoman added. ''Roma can have the nationality of a country but do not take part in the life of the country. Political participation is a natural consequence of having real roots in a society. Roma should be encouraged to express themselves.''
ECRI’s policy advice and its educational work have helped to swing opinion in favour of the understanding that bigotry is as much a problem for the majority as it is blight on the affected minority.
''Everyone is endangered by discrimination,” the ECRI spokeswoman added. “No one can feel safe. Societies built on hatred do not work. Discrimination just doesn’t make sense.''