COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION CONSIDERS REPORT OF MAURITIUS
21 February 2013
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today completed its consideration of the combined fifteenth to nineteenth periodic report of Mauritius on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Presenting the report, Yatindra Nath Varma, Attorney-General of Mauritius, said that Mauritius, as a founding member of the Human Rights Council, was fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights. Mauritius took pride in its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-racial society and had worked to build a nation of equality since its independence in 1968. The Constitution guaranteed equal rights without discrimination on the basis of race, caste, place of origin, political opinions, colour or sex. New measures to strengthen equality included the establishment of an Equal Opportunities Commission in 2012, an Equal Opportunities Policy, and an Equal Opportunities Tribunal. Specific policies and programmes had been set up to improve the situation of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, including members of the Creole and Chagossian communities.
Committee Experts noted that Mauritius had made considerable efforts to implement the Convention and asked questions about cross-religious marriages, policies and programmes for vulnerable groups, the situation of the persons who had been removed from the Chagos Islands by the United Kingdom, and ways of promoting national identity without masking cultural diversity. The Committee requested examples of the implementation of the Equal Opportunities Act and tangible evidence that there was, in practice, no racial discrimination. The Experts also raised issues concerning the eradication of discrimination against women in employment, the status of the Creole language in education, the situation of migrant workers, and social inequality.
In concluding remarks, January Bardill, Country Rapporteur for Mauritius, said that the dialogue with the delegation had been open and frank. Mauritius had made good progress in enhancing formal institutions dealing with human rights issues, and initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and the National Empowerment Foundation were commendable. Concern was expressed at the persistence of hierarchical structures in society, particularly relating to the caste system and the lack of disaggregated data on the population. More concrete evidence was needed regarding how the special measures which had been taken were benefiting the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, such as the Creoles and Chagossians.
Yatindra Nath Varma, Attorney-General, said that Mauritius welcomed the work of the Committee and was committed to strengthening the effectiveness of its human rights system.
The delegation of Mauritius included representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office of Home Affairs, the Attorney-General’s Office, and the Permanent Mission of Mauritius to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 3 p.m. on Thursday, 21 February, when it will begin its consideration of the combined eighteenth to twentieth periodic report of New Zealand (CERT/NZL/18-20).
The combined fifteenth to nineteenth periodic report of Mauritius can be read here (CERD/C/MUS/15-19).
Presentation of the Report
YATINDRA NATH VARMA, Attorney-General of Mauritius, said that Mauritius, as a founding member of the Human Rights Council, was fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide and was a party to all major international human rights instruments. Since its independence in 1968, Mauritius had shown full respect for the values of democracy and had worked to build a nation of equality. The Constitution of Mauritius guaranteed the right to equal protection and benefits under the law without discrimination based on race, caste, place of origin, political opinions, colour or sex.
Mauritius had enacted various pieces of legislation in order to honour its obligations under the Convention. An Equal Opportunities Commission had been set up in April 2012 to fulfil the role of a watchdog and aimed to eliminate discrimination in all sectors. The Commission examined and investigated complaints referred to it; but it also investigated cases where it believed that discrimination might have occurred. The Equal Opportunities Policy would ensure transparency and good governance in the running of organizations through the promotion of a merit-only system whereby selection, promotion, recruitment, training opportunities and employment were based on talent, competence and willingness to work. Non-compliance with the orders and directives of the Equal Opportunities Tribunal entailed criminal prosecution and fines.
Furthermore, the Protection of Human Rights Act had been amended to fulfil the country’s obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. It also provided for the setting up of a national preventive mechanism within the National Human Rights Commission, and for the establishment of a Police Complaints Division to investigate complaints made against members of the police force other than allegations of corruption and money laundering.
The National Human Rights Commission had been given the autonomy to engage suitable persons or bodies to discharge their specific functions in an independent manner. The Local Government Act, which was passed in 2011, provided that any group presenting more than two candidates in an electoral ward during Municipal Council and Village Council elections ensured that its candidates were not of the same sex; the Constitution had also amended to accommodate this. The Legal Aid Act was amended last year in order to ensure that legal assistance and legal aid were made available to a wide range of persons in need.
The Training and Employment of Disabled Persons Act was amended in 2012 to improve the provision and access to employment for persons with disabilities. The definition of “persons with disabilities” had been reviewed under the Act and it now encompassed persons who had been certified by the Training and Employment of Disabled Persons Board as having a long term physical disfigurement or physical, mental or sensory disability, including a visual, hearing or speech disability.
Mauritius took pride in its multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial society, and its efforts were focused on promoting a cohesive, pluralistic society where unity and diversity remained the basis for development and progress.
The National Human Rights Action Plan 2012-2020 had recently been launched with the aim of strengthening the national human rights framework in order to protect and safeguard civil and political rights, and to secure a greater realization of economic, social and cultural rights.
A Human Rights Monitoring Committee, comprising all human rights stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, Ministries and Departments, as well as the private sector, had been set up by the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the national Action Plan.
The Convention was covered in all human rights training programmes, and Mauritius strongly believed that its human rights education programme, carried out in youth centres, was essential in ensuring that respect for human rights would be passed on to future generations.
Policies and programmes were set up for the entire population and the Creole community enjoyed the same economic, social and cultural rights as other communities. Specific projects were in place to improve the situation of the poor in all communities. The Creole language was now taught in school and a television channel operated in that language.
Moreover, in 2010, the Ministry of Social Integration and Economic Empowerment had been created to look into poverty-related issues, including the empowerment of the poor. Special programmes of social aid, construction of special housing units, and child and family development had been put in place for needy families. An Inter-Ministerial High Powered Committee had been set up to look into the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the Truth and Justice Commission.
Chagossian people had been unlawfully evicted by the United Kingdom from the Chagos islands, in violation of Articles 2 and 5 of the Convention. Chagossians were citizens of Mauritius and they enjoyed the same rights as all other citizens of Mauritius. Nevertheless, special measures had been taken to provide additional assistance and aid to these persons.
Mauritius was not in a position to ratify amendments to Article 8 of the Convention, but was currently considering making a declaration under the provisions of Article 14 of the Convention.
Questions by Experts
JANUARY BARDILL, Country Rapporteur for Mauritius, said that the report, which had been detailed and complied with the relevant guidelines, showed that Mauritius had made considerable efforts to implement the Convention. Much progress had been made since independence in 1968 to build an egalitarian society with democratic values characterized by mutual understanding and tolerance among its people.
Political leaders in Mauritius had drawn attention to the fact that the ethnic mix of its population was complex and claimed that racism did not exist on the island; but it was important for the delegation to explain what evidence there was that, in practice, this was indeed the case.
The Committee welcomed the Equal Opportunities Act, the Equal Opportunities Commission, and the Equal Opportunities Tribunal to protect citizens from discrimination. It would have been useful to have real examples of the implementation of the Equal Opportunities Act.
It was necessary to caution communities to refrain from using culture and religion to exclude persons from a different culture and religion, as this compromised the right to equal treatment. The Committee urged Mauritius to keep a close eye on the implementation of equality laws and expressed concern at reports received about non-Catholic students being refused admission to Catholic schools. Efforts to make education accessible to all and the promotion of the use of local languages, such as Creole, in formal education were commendable. Exactly, what was the status of Creole? Was it considered to be an official language?
Mauritius should make every effort to ensure that women from marginalized communities had access to equal opportunities in the economic and political life of the country. Employment discrimination against women should be eradicated completely.
A more detailed explanation was needed concerning the method which had been used to segment the population. In the report, only three groups were explicitly mentioned, whereas the rest of the population was referred to as “the population”. Why were Creole and European populations not identified as separate minority groups?
The Committee welcomed recent employment legislation but expressed concern at reports that migrant workers faced long working hours, below-minimum wages, and sub-standard living conditions. A proper legal framework should be put in place to protect the rights of migrant workers.
Additional legislation should be passed to explicitly promote racial understanding and harmony, although it was recognized that the segmentation of society might work as an obstacle in that regard.
There seemed to be a hierarchy of ethnic groups in Mauritius, with Europeans and Indians at the top, while Creole and Chagossian populations were at the bottom. Chagossians, in particular, were reported to be largely illiterate, to face very difficult living conditions, and to suffer from a high rate of unemployment. Reports suggested that they were subject to substance and alcohol abuse.
An Expert said that the situation facing the Chagos’ population was worrying and that the issue had been raised during the review of the latest periodic reports of the United Kingdom. How many Chagossians had been removed from the Chagos islands and what was their ethnic background? How many Chagossians had moved to the United Kingdom?
Another Committee Expert noted that the Commission had received a high number of complaints for police brutality and additional information was requested. The Expert also wanted to know how many complaints had been made for racial discrimination offences, how many trials had taken place, and how many convictions had been made for racial discrimination and for inciting racial hatred.
An Expert asked where did creoles fit in a country mainly dominated by Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities. Were there civil marriages in Mauritius and were cross-religious marriages recognized by law? Clarification was also requested on the meaning of “discrimination by victimization” as referred to in the report.
The human rights infrastructure of the country appeared to be relatively developed, noted an Expert, but clarification was needed on how all the mechanisms which had been put in place functioned in practice. What were the target groups of the National Human Rights Action Plan? Who were the vulnerable groups in Mauritius and how were vulnerable groups defined and identified? How did policies and programmes cater to the needs of groups identified as vulnerable?
Experts stressed that it was important for the Committee to have disaggregated data about the entire population, including Creole people as the most economically disadvantaged group. Combined data for the Creole people and for Europeans and Franco-Mauritians made it difficult for the Committee to assess the need for additional measures to be taken by Mauritius. Was there sufficient recognition in Mauritius of the distinct culture of Creole people? As economic success in Mauritius depended significantly on success at school and, given that places in good schools were very limited, the children of poorer families that could not afford private tutoring were disadvantaged and were doomed to remain at the bottom of society unless specific measures were taken to tackle the problem.
An Expert said that Mauritius had the resources, the ability and willingness to combat problems of racial discrimination; but noted that Creole people were poorer than other population groups and the gap was widening, which would only contribute to already existing elitist tendencies. Were there any positive discrimination mechanisms such as quotas to help Creole individuals study at university level?
How could the promotion of a national identity in Mauritius take place without masking the cultural differences of the population but, rather, by strengthening cultural diversity?
Response by Delegation
The delegation said that, after independence, the collection of data had proved problematic; and in 1992 it was decided not to gather statistics based on the four major population groups. A new system was in place and religion was used to identify different groups. Almost 50 years after the end of colonialism, Mauritius was working towards building and consolidating one nation, so gathering data on communities was seen as a potentially divisive practice.
Specific programmes and policies were in place to eradicate poverty and improve the living conditions of the poor, who benefited from special housing and healthcare schemes as part of the community empowerment programme. The Ministry of Social Integration and Empowerment coordinated efforts in that respect. Special assistance was provided to children from poorer backgrounds, including additional teaching hours for pupils who could not afford private tutoring. A decentralized cooperation programme, funded by the European Union, trained persons from poorer backgrounds in entrepreneurship; and 18 scholarships for study at local or foreign universities were awarded to students from disadvantaged backgrounds on the basis of social criteria.
The delegation said that the electoral system was currently being reformed and that there were ongoing discussions about the process.
It was clarified that cultural diversity was indeed promoted in Mauritius but, at the same time, it was important to construct a national identity for the entire population without denying the right of groups to preserve their own culture and language.
Regarding civil inter-community marriage, the delegation said that inter-community marriage was a common phenomenon in Mauritius and that many couples opted for a civil union and a religious marriage.
Regarding the Chagos Archipelago, there was currently no case pending before the International Court of Justice. The United Kingdom had refused an invitation to discuss the matter under the provisions of the Convention, and Mauritius was currently considering all legal options available. The delegation stressed that Chagos islanders had been forcibly and unlawfully removed by the United Kingdom. Land had been given to Chagossians who had been displaced and a number of measures had been taken to improve the situation of the Chagossian persons now living in Mauritius, including a variety of activities organized by a welfare fund for the children of families of Chagossian origin.
The delegation clarified that, since international treaties ratified by Mauritius were not automatically incorporated in national legislation, additional amendments had been made to ensure compliance with international conventions. There was no definition of racial discrimination in the law but several laws had been passed which incorporated the provisions of the Convention in that regard. For example, the Constitution stipulated that no law should be discriminatory either in itself or in its effect. Moreover, according to the Constitution, citizens who felt that they had suffered discrimination could apply to the Supreme Court for redress. The delegation said that the Criminal Code provided for the prosecution for discrimination offences, including the use of the internet for the dissemination of hate language. Under the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crime Act of 2003, a preliminary enquiry had been launched into four inter-related cases reported to the police, alleging that comments with racist connotations had been posted on Facebook. The anti-discrimination law provided for penalties to be applied by the competent sentencing body in cases of violations. Persons who had suffered discrimination could also apply for damages, and complaints could be made directly to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
A Task Force set up in 2001 had identified discriminatory provisions in the Constitution in relation to employment. The Government had established a monitoring Committee to look into the recommendations made by the Task Force in order to harmonize legislation with international instruments. This was an ongoing process. The Employment Rights Act of 2008, which had replaced the former Labour Act, introduced the concept of paternity benefits to all workers and also addressed the issue of sexual harassment.
Mauritius had not ratified the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families but applied the essence of the Convention in disputes between migrant workers and their employers. The delegation stressed that migrant workers enjoyed the same rights as Mauritian workers with regard to minimum wages and other conditions of employment. The Special Migrant Workers Unit, which ensured that the rights of migrant workers were respected, carried out regular inspections and investigated reports of ill-treatment. The Special Migrant Workers Unit also dealt with workers’ grievances, most of which were usually resolved within one or two days. Employers were required to submit a contract of employment for the migrant worker at the same time they applied for a work visa.
The Equal Opportunities Commission dealt with cases of discrimination emanating from a person to the detriment of another person. This filled the lacuna with regard to constitutional provisions applying to discrimination emanating from the State, not from individuals, and covered cases such as “discrimination by victimization”, whereby the discriminator subjected or threatened to subject the person concerned to unfavourable treatment because the latter had made a complaint or proposed to make a complaint to the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Mauritius, which had a multi-racial and multi-cultural population of 1.2 million inhabitants, attached great importance to the protection of freedom of conscience and the right of citizens to practise their religion. The Parliament allocated, on an annual basis, subsidies to the Creole population, the majority of whom were Christian, and in 2012 the Mauritian Creole language started to be introduced in education. All radio stations had programmes in Creole, as did television channels. A television channel broadcasting exclusively in Creole had been established. In addition, the Nelson Mandela Trust Fund had been set up in order to promote Creole culture and language. Mauritius had the same policy of free schooling and transport for all citizens, including the Creole population. All Mauritian citizens spoke Creole and it was felt that Creole was the common heritage of the entire population.
The delegation also reported that Mauritius had set up a Commission for Slavery and Endangered Labourers, which aimed to reconcile the descendants of slaves and endangered labourers with their past, in order to promote reconciliation and social justice and unity. An inter-ministerial committee had been set up to implement a number of recommendations, including raising awareness of issues concerning slaves who had been brought into the country from abroad, providing training in the conservation of documents, and allocating plots of land to descendants of former slaves who wished to engage in agricultural activities.
Mauritian companies were required by law to spend 2 per cent of their net profit on the implementation of social responsibility programmes for the broader community and the social environment, while money was also spent on community empowerment.
The National Human Rights Action Plan targeted all citizens of Mauritius, with special emphasis on disadvantaged communities, and aimed to promote social economic rights in terms of healthcare and education.
There were 40,000 persons defined as “vulnerable persons” and had been identified as living below the poverty line in December 2012. A Ministry of Social Integration and Empowerment had been created to address the problem of poverty and was implementing a package of programmes aiming to provide immediate support to the group of citizens affected. Three integrated housing projects had been implemented in deprived areas across the country and provided a number of facilities and social services to the community, such as a kindergarten and training to improve the employability of the community. A fourth integrated housing project was currently being implemented.
Regarding education, Mauritius placed emphasis on inclusive education irrespective of the pupils’ background. A number of reforms had been implemented in recent years to enhance school programmes, and to promote cultural diversity and equality through education. The delegation noted that the absenteeism rate in education had been reduced in recent years. A Special Monitoring Team had been set up in collaboration with non-governmental organizations in order to identify children with special education needs and to facilitate their integration in the school’s community.
The Mauritian Cultural Trust was responsible for promoting the cultural heritage of Mauritius, both domestically and worldwide. It also actively encouraged Mauritian artistic and cultural activity.
Questions by Experts
An Expert said that the arbitration proceedings concerning the Chagos Islands did not cover entirely the scope of the dispute, but only maritime issues under the Law of the Sea. Additional information was requested on the newly established Equal Opportunities Commission and its relationship to the National Human Rights Commission. What did the notion of “caste” cover in Mauritius and what was the link between belonging to a caste and belonging to other groups, such as professional bodies? Was there truly an ongoing phenomenon of castes in the country?
Another Expert congratulated the delegation on the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How did that development come about? Did segments of society demand that initiative? Further clarification was required concerning the Chagossian population which had settled in the United Kingdom, particularly in terms of specific numbers and their legal status. Had Mauritius received compensation from the United Kingdom? Further information was also requested on provisions made to protect the equality of persons in inter-racial marriages.
Response by the Delegation
Concerning the reform of the Constitution, the delegation said that the financing of political parties and the electoral system were being examined, with a view to making the latter more equitable especially in terms of the representation of women.
Each of the two Commissions had its own specific mandate and distinct work schedule, and there was no overlap between the Equal Opportunities Commission and the National Human Rights Commission.
The Constitution did not allow for positive discrimination because it advocated for the equality of all citizens. Nevertheless, special measures were taken bearing in mind the specificities of groups of citizens such as the Creole community.
Concerning the legal status of inter-community partners, members of different communities marrying outside their community were equal before the law and enjoyed the same rights as everyone else without discrimination.
Regarding the Chagos Archipelago, there was currently no information on compensation claims which might have been made in the past. Mauritius had taken the issue to the African Union and received support for any action it decided to take in order to protect its sovereignty. Mauritius was primarily focusing on the Chagossians who lived in Mauritius.
The caste system was not recognized by the law and citizens were not officially identified by caste, yet the system was deeply rooted in Mauritian traditions. Mauritius was looking for ways to ensure that the caste system did not influence the opinions and perceptions of citizens, even if castes continued to exist as a social notion, especially with regards to marriage.
The Equal Opportunities Commission was set up in 2012 and was independent and autonomous. The Commission’s budget was initially part of the Office of the Prime Minister but a separate budget had been later allocated to the Commission to allow it to preserve its independence and autonomy. The reasons for the creation of the Commission included concerns about certain gaps and insufficiencies in anti-discriminatory provisions in the Constitution, especially concerning discrimination cases in the private sphere or indirect cases of discrimination. It was also felt that the scope of implementation of anti-discrimination laws had to be broadened.
JANUARY BARDILL, Country Rapporteur for Mauritius, said that the dialogue with the delegation had been open and extremely frank. Despite being a relatively small country, Mauritius had a vibrant and dynamic democracy. The legal framework of the constitutional democracy was adequate and Mauritius had made very good progress in enhancing formal institutions dealing with human rights issues. Initiatives to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and the National Empowerment Foundation which addressed social justice issues were commendable. Concern was expressed at the persistence of hierarchical structures in society, particularly in relation to the caste system. It was important to further promote equality and equal access to resources. More concrete evidence was needed regarding how special measures taken were benefiting the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, such as Creole and Chagossian communities. Mauritius should consider gathering disaggregated data on its population in the next census in any way it saw fit. The situation of Creole persons and the fact they had been placed under the “general population” category remained of concern. The Committee encouraged Mauritius to continue to work with civil society, and expressed its ongoing support for its efforts to resolve the dispute over the Chagos Islands with the United Kingdom.
YATINDA NATH VARMA, Attorney-General of Mauritius, thanked the Committee for the constructive interactive dialogue. It had provided an excellent platform for fruitful deliberation on the elimination of racial discrimination. Mauritius welcomed the work of the Committee and was committed to strengthening the effectiveness of its human rights system.
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