31th UN Human Rights Council: Minorities and Caste-based Discriminations

Side-event on a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The purpose of this event was to advance discussion on minority related issues as well as to explore effective solutions and positive practices to combat discrimination based on caste and analogous systems with a particular focus on minorities.


Akhdam children in Taizz, minority of Yemen. Source: Tribes of the World

        Ms. Rita Izak-Ndiaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues
        Ms Mohna Ansari, Member of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal
        Ms. Rania El Rajji, Middle East Programme Coordinator, Minorities Right Group International
        Ms Salimata Lam, National Coordinator SOS-Esclaves, Mauritania
        Ms Meena Varma, Director, International Dalit Solidarity Network – United Kingdom
Mr. Antti Korkeakivi, Chief, Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Special Rapporteur’s introduction on minority issues

Ms Rita Izak-Ndiaye has been a Special Rapporteur on Minorities Issues for the UN since 2011 and had done both countries specific and broad thematic work on these issues. Since the beginning of her mandate, she tried to look into the history of caste-discriminations research, gathering all data and information that had been previously done by her predecessors but also the civil society, NGOs, researchers and professors. She drew two conclusions from her research: there was a real lack of a comprehensive, global report on these issues; and a great difficulty to find reliable and relevant information, the majority of which came from the civil society rather than from governments or UN agencies.
These issues touch millions of people throughout the world, perceived as being inherently “inferior”. The Special Rapporteur stressed out the fact that in most of the cases, caste minorities were dehumanized, viewed as being “less” than humans and definitely “less” than the other populations.  One the major issue is therefore to change people’s mind, perceptions and overall mentalities: how can their framework of thought be challenged?
The Special Rapporteur also recognized an important parallel and link between poverty and injustice, which brings out the importance of the Agenda 2030 (the Objectives of Sustainable Development) as they plan to develop economic possibilities for marginalized people and populations.

Two necessary steps to challenge discriminations
Two good practices were highlighted in the side event: the first one, which represents the first step, is the official acknowledgment by the government of the country of these issues: this is what Nepal did during the report of the Special Rapporteur in the Human Rights Council the 15 March 2016 on minority issues. The second step is the need for action through planning, legislation and implementation. Officials need to take the matter into their own hands: someone should be charged, in the government, of caste issues and of the policies of the country regarding them.

Good practices and challenges
Ms. Mohna Ansari, member of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, explained that the existence of the commission she represents was already a good step forward in order to deal with these issues: there is indeed a national plan in Nepal to counter discriminations and tackle minority issues. She raised the problem that laws are not sufficient: they need to be properly applied at the grass-root level in order to change things and properly challenge mentalities. Furthermore, there is a real need for transparency that has to be taken into account and that is difficult to obtain.
A NGO representative of India also raised the issue of a poor legal system: indeed, when there is a long delay in justice, as it is the case in India, and when the state does not provide protection and necessary accommodations for witnesses and victims, most of the cases fail to continue through prosecution. According to him, Nepal National Commission should require from the government to follow up cases of discriminations, violence or other issues with prosecution and with available competent lawyers in order for the victims to be well represented.

Ms. Rania El Rajji, Middle East Programme Coordinator and Minorities Right Group International, explained how current discriminations on minorities can be legitimized by past history which is used as an excuse. Such is the case of the Akhdam, ethnic minority which is believed to compose 2 to 10% of Yemen’s population: they are said to originally come from Africa, allegedly to conquer the country, which is used as a pretext to treat them today as a lower class, the very word “Akhdam” meaning “servant” in Arabic. One of the project of her Group, in coordination with other NGOs, would be to raise awareness on the importance of birth registration as it enables access to the society, right to education, and counter the inferiority that they often themselves introvert. 
Ms. Salimata Lam, National Coordinator of SOS-Esclaves in Mauritania, argued that positive discrimination measures and laws from African states would be a good practice to counter the great handicaps that caste populations and minorities suffer from since their birth.

What role for the international organizations, especially UN agencies?
Great taboos exist on the discrimination issues in a great number of states, especially African ones. It is therefore important to raise awareness, to inform, and to report in order to make these issues visible. The civil society, NGOs and associations, supported by the UN agencies, is a great way to make the states face their own responsibilities.

What relation between legislation and mentality?
One other question that was raised was on the effectiveness of legislation: if the problem is beyond laws and mainly social, as it is a matter of perception and mentality, is a change in legislation going to be enough to induce change in the whole society? According to the panelists, legislation would nevertheless be effective in its own way, as if a law is implemented, it changes people’s behavior in order to avoid legal punishment.  Legislation also represents a political will of changing things and making the society evolves: it is necessary for sustainable change and the improvement of minorities and casted people’s situation.

Léa Guinet, Research assistant