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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination examines the report of Mauritius

GENEVA (15 August 2018) - The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its consideration of the combined twentieth to twenty-third periodic report of Mauritius on its implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Presenting the report, Maneesh Gobin, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Institutional Reforms of Mauritius, said that since its independence in 1968, Mauritius was relentlessly committed to the universal values of democracy, good governance, the rule of law, and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.  The Government had set up a new ministry dedicated to human rights in September 2017 to treat issues pertaining to human rights in a more systematic and comprehensive manner, as well as a national mechanism for reporting and follow-up.  The mechanism had become, inter alia, a platform for consultations with non-governmental organizations and civil society on a regular basis.  Mr. Gobin noted that most provisions of the Convention were already entrenched in the Constitution and in different pieces of legislation.  The Constitution, which was the supreme law of the country, prohibited discrimination and advocated equality for all.  It also provided that no law would be discriminatory either in itself or in its effect.  The Criminal Code already contained provisions for offences pertaining to racial discrimination on the grounds of race or creed.  The Government was committed at its highest level to ensure that no one threatened the racial harmony in Mauritius.  

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts regretted that civil society had not participated in the drafting of the State party’s report, and that the vestiges of a hierarchy based on origin, skin colour, caste or race continued to exist.  They further inquired about the measures to modify the Equal Opportunities Act to include language as one of the grounds for discrimination; the independence of the Equal Opportunities Commission; and the number of complaints of discrimination received, disciplinary measures adopted, and the compensation granted to victims of discrimination.  More information was requested on special measures to speed up the enjoyment of human rights by vulnerable groups (such as the Creoles); implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission; the situation of migrant workers and domestic workers; measures to fight trafficking in persons, and labour and sexual exploitation (indebted servitude and child prostitution); protection of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; the ongoing electoral reform; the situation of the Chagossians; the use of languages; the employment and political representation of minorities and women; interaction with civil society; and statistical data on the composition of the prison population.  

In her concluding remarks, Yemhelhe Mint Mohamed, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Mauritius, thanked the delegation for a constructive and sincere dialogue.  

On his part, Mr. Gobin expressed appreciation for the opportunity provided by the Committee to engage in an interactive dialogue.  Mauritius welcomed and supported the work of the Committee in its entirety and it strongly believed that the United Nations treaty bodies were the best safeguards at the international level to act as watchdogs for human rights.  

Noureddine Amir, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation and expressed hope that Mauritius’ next periodic report would contain many positive developments.  

The delegation of Mauritius included representatives of the Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Institutional Reforms, the Attorney General’s Office, and of the Permanent Mission of Mauritius to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public today at 3 p.m., to consider the combined nineteenth to twenty-first periodic report of Cuba (CERD/C/CUB/19-21).  

Report

The Committee has before it the combined twentieth to twenty-third periodic report of Mauritius: CERD/C/MUS/20-23.

Presentation of the Report

MANEESH GOBIN, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Institutional Reforms of Mauritius, said that since its independence in 1968, Mauritius was relentlessly committed to the universal values of democracy, good governance, the rule of law, and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.  The Government of Mauritius was determined to provide a human rights-based approach to the socio-economic and cultural development of the country in order to enable its citizens to enjoy a good quality of life, based on core values such as human dignity, respect, equality of treatment, economic empowerment, and social justice.  The Government had set up a new ministry dedicated to human rights in September 2017 to treat issues pertaining to human rights in a more systematic and comprehensive manner, as well as a national mechanism for reporting and follow-up.  The mechanism had become, inter alia, a platform for consultations with non-governmental organizations and civil society on a regular basis.  That new framework aimed to ensure that human rights obligations were fully met, and periodic reports and mid-term reviews were submitted in a timely manner after thorough consultations with all parties concerned.  Furthermore, it ensured a better coordination among ministries with respect to the implementation of recommendations and decisions, and it enabled thorough monitoring of human rights issues.  

Briefing the Committee about positive developments in the country with respect to the protection of human rights since the previous review, Mr. Gobin noted that most provisions of the Convention were already entrenched in the Constitution and in different pieces of legislation.  The Constitution, which was the supreme law of the country, prohibited discrimination and advocated equality for all.  It also provided that no law would be discriminatory either in itself or in its effect.  The State endeavoured to take all necessary measures to help any group or persons to achieve equal enjoyment of human rights.  The Equal Opportunities Act, amended in 2017, provided for the prohibition of discrimination in employment on the grounds of persons’ criminal record, both at the recruitment and promotion level, and it placed the burden of proof on the employer.  Presently, the Equal Opportunities Act did not include language as a ground for discrimination.  As for complaints of racial discrimination, relevant national human rights institutions conducted awareness campaigns on a regular basis across the island.  Moreover, the Citizen Support Portal, an initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office, had been launched in April 2017 with a view to better address citizens’ complaints.  The Criminal Code already contained provisions for offences pertaining to racial discrimination on the grounds of race or creed.  The Government was committed at its highest level to ensure that no one threatened the racial harmony in Mauritius.  

The Government was committed to reform the electoral system in order to ensure a fairer representation in the National Assembly, to guarantee better representation of women, and to address the issue of mandatory declaration of community.  A ministerial committee had been set up in January 2016 and it had looked into several issues pertaining to the electoral reform, namely financing of political parties, widening of powers of the Electoral Supervisory Commission, and women’s representation in the National Assembly.  Amendments to the electoral system in Rodrigues had already been catered for.  In May 2018, the Ministerial Committee on Electoral Reforms had submitted its report, which was now being examined by the Prime Minister’s Office.  Turning to the issues of the Chagos Archipelago, Mr. Gobin stressed that it had always formed an integral part of Mauritius, and that the Government was fully aware of the plight of the Chagossians.  The Government had spared no effort to improve their living conditions, including access to free health services, free education, and free public transport for students, the elderly and persons with disabilities.  The Government had donated land for construction and had set up the Chagossian Welfare Fund.  Speaking of the situation of migrants, Mr. Gobin informed that the authorities had set up a shelter for adult victims of trafficking in persons.  In line with its commitment to fight modern slavery and trafficking in persons, the Government had recently joined the call to action to end forced labour, modern slavery, and trafficking in persons.    

Questions by the Country Rapporteur

YEMHELHE MINT MOHAMED, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Mauritius, regretted that civil society had not participated in the drafting of the State party’s report.  Referring to the diversity of the population in Mauritius, Ms. Mohamed said that the majority of citizens (65.8 per cent) were of Indian origin and descendants of indentured labours.  The second largest population were the Creoles (27.7 per cent).  There was also a Chinese minority (3 per cent) and a white minority, mainly of French origin (2 per cent).  

In what cases had the Convention been invoked in national courts?  What measures had been taken to modify the Equal Opportunities Act to include language as one of the grounds for discrimination?  What measures had been taken to strengthen the independence of the Equal Opportunities Commission?  What statistical data was available on the number of complaints of discrimination received, disciplinary measures adopted, as well as on the compensation to victims of discrimination?

Ms. Mohamed observed that the 1968 classification of different ethnic groups in Mauritius was no longer accurate.  What steps had been taken to update that classification on the basis of self-identification?  What special measures had been taken to speed up the enjoyment of human rights by vulnerable groups, such as the Creoles?  

The Creoles remained significantly underprivileged in the exercise of their economic, social and cultural rights.  What steps had the Government undertaken to improve the living conditions of the Creoles, including those on Rodrigues island, namely their access to education, housing and employment?  When it came to minority groups, the Committee regretted the existence of a hierarchy based on origin, skin colour, caste or race.  What was the state of implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission to make a society that was less racist and elitist?    

What measures had been taken to improve the working conditions for migrant workers, in particular domestic workers?  Ms. Mohamed further inquired about the State party’s measures to fight trafficking in persons and labour exploitation.  

Turning to the situation of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, Ms. Mohamed reminded that Mauritius was not a party to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and she encouraged the State party to accede to it.  On the legal protection framework for refoulement, Ms. Mohamed asked whether Mauritius had any treaties with third countries on extradition.  

What programmes of education on human rights were available in schools to promote reconciliation, social inclusion, and mutual understanding?  On linguistic and cultural rights, Ms. Mohamed inquired about the measures taken to officialize and preserve the Creole language, namely within the education system.  

Referring to the ongoing electoral reform, Ms. Mohamed inquired about the steps taken to guarantee a more equal participation in the political life for all ethnic groups in Mauritius.  

What measures had the State party taken to improve the living conditions of the Chagossians living on Diego Garcia island and other islands of the Chagos Archipelago?  

Questions by Other Experts

GUN KUT, Committee Member and Rapporteur for Follow-up to Concluding Observations, reminded the delegation that the Committee had expected Mauritius to submit a follow-up report within one year since the previous review in 2013.  Unfortunately, the State party had not submitted the report within that time.  The Committee had asked Mauritius to prohibit organizations that promoted racism and to consider racism as an aggravating circumstance in relevant cases.  The second issue concerned legal remedies for victims of racial discrimination.  Reconciliation was a good practice, but victims needed more legal protection.  Finally, the third issue concerned the number of cases that courts had actually ruled as cases of racial discrimination.  

One Expert pointed out that the data on the employment of minorities was missing, adding that ethnic origin, race and skin colour remained grounds for frequent discrimination both in the private and public sector.  What measures had been taken by the Equal Opportunities Commission to research that problem and effectively end such discrimination?  

The Equal Opportunities Act and the Labour Law stipulated conditions and practices under which employers could be penalized for discrimination.  How were those legal acts implemented in practice?  To which organ did the Equal Opportunities Commission report and was it fully independent?

How many Chagossians currently resided in Mauritius?  How many were in the diaspora?  What was their level of participation in the process to recover their right to return to the Chagos Archipelago?  

An Expert asked for statistical data on the prison population in the country to shed light on structural discrimination.  He observed that it seemed that the State party was moving away from the idea of taking special measures (affirmative action) for vulnerable groups.  Who could benefit from those special measures?  

Minorities were not specifically recognized in Mauritius, partly due to the understanding of ethnic identity.  In 2017, 48 per cent of the population were Hindu, 17 per cent Muslim, 30 per cent Christian, and three per cent Buddhist.  Currently, the Hindu community was best represented in the Government.  Why were the Creoles overrepresented in the prison population, and underrepresented in the Government?

Why was there no follow-up on the complaints of racial discrimination?  How many complaints had been taken to court, and how many had resulted in sentences?  Was there a reversal of the burden of proof in civil cases?

One Expert inquired about the use of languages in Mauritius (English, French and Creole).  Was there a maximum time frame for the detention of asylum seekers and migrants?  

Speaking of the ongoing electoral reform, an Expert asked when the State party would do away with the mandatory declaration of belonging to a certain community (Hindu, Muslim, Creole, Chinese).

An Expert welcomed the decision of the Government to form the Truth and Justice Commission to explore slavery and indentured labour during the colonial period in Mauritius.  What was the status of the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations?  When would a museum of slavery be established?  

What steps would the State party take to officialise and preserve the Creole language, including through the education system?  What was the rate of literacy among different communities?  

Experts further inquired about the discrimination of the Rastafarian religious group, maintenance of the caste system in Mauritius, and about a movement among the lower Indian castes to end discriminatory practices.

What was the real political representation of minorities in the country?  It seemed that one group dominated the political scene.  The Creoles tended to be represented in the mobile police units tasked to maintain law and order, and to repress any demonstrations, without real career paths.  

What was the role of civil society in Mauritius?  What was their level of participation and interaction with the Government?

Replies by the Delegation

MANEESH GOBIN, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Institutional Reforms of Mauritius, welcomed the opportunity to clarify a number of misunderstandings that still prevailed among Committee Members.  He refuted the collection of statistics on the basis on race, skin colour and religion as contrary to the Convention provisions.  Mr. Gobin assured the Committee of the robustness and independence of Mauritius’ court system.   The rule of law stipulated that there would be no discrimination on the basis of race or religion.  The gathering of statistics on the basis of race and such would have a contrary effect.  Mauritius was not a racist country; perhaps elitist because those with best degrees occupied the best positions.

Poverty cut across religion, skin colour, ethnic origin and caste.  Poverty affected all communities in Mauritius, Mr. Gobin stressed.  Mauritius’ poverty reduction and housing programmes were universal programmes that did not target specific groups; they were open to all.  That was the bedrock of racial harmony in the country.  Noting that he was taking so many “bullets for the racial harmony in his country,” Mr. Gobin said that he was shocked hearing so many questions about the caste system in Mauritius.  Such questions would disrupt the racial harmony in the country.  The Police Commissioner in Mauritius was Creole due to his professional competences and not his ethnic origin.

As for the Experts’ comment that the insufficient number of cases of racial discrimination in courts pointed out to a problem, Mr. Gobin cautioned against jumping to hasty conclusions.  There was a lacuna in the Criminal Code on incitement to racial hatred, and it concerned online hate speech.  That lacuna had been remedied with the adoption of the Judicial and Legal Provisions Act.  The Information and Communication Technologies Act provided even harsher penalties for online hate speech.  The Government would not tolerate any threat to the racial harmony of Mauritius because that was all that people had.  

Turning to the electoral system, Mr. Gobin stated that he was not aware of any discrimination against lower Indian castes.  He had seen such issues in Indian movies.  There was no such thing as the perpetuation of the caste system.  Hasty conclusions could lead to a disaster.  Mr. Gobin clarified that the target was to eradicate poverty and to have a merit-based system of recruitment.  There was an ongoing consultation for the reform of the electoral system.  To understand the electoral system in Mauritius, one should do more than just read statistics; one should understand history.  In colonial times, it was important to maintain harmonious relations, which was why Mauritius had three-member constituencies.  The “Best Loser System” was based on four communities only for the purpose of appointment among the best losers.  That system should not be applied to any other field.  It had been designed to ensure a fair political representation.  

The Truth and Justice Commission had submitted its report in 2011.  One of its main findings concerned land ownership and dispossession of land.  The Law Reform Commission was examining the setting up of a land commission.  On the intercontinental museum of slavery, that project would soon be launched and the land for the construction of the museum had been set aside.

Comments by the Committee Chair and Committee Members

NOUREDDINE AMIR, Committee Chairperson, reminded the delegation that the exclusive function and mission of the Committee was to monitor the effective implementation of the Convention.  He also reminded that members of the Committee very carefully examined the reports presented by States parties to the Convention, studying all the documents made available to them.  That was true for each and every State party to the Convention.  The issues of racial discrimination affected all States parties.  There was no State in the world where racial discrimination was absent.  The Committee’s job was to ensure that it gained full information about the composition of countries, including surveys and statistics, to ascertain less fortunate members of society.

Mr. Amir underlined that nobody questioned the unity of the society of Mauritius.  The Committee simply wanted to highlight that certain problems might escape the authorities.  For example, minority languages.  Perhaps certain minorities did not have the same rights in accessing employment or housing.  Those problems would not be possible to ascertain without relevant statistics.  Certain people who suffered racial discrimination never admitted it because they were afraid to come forward for various reasons.  In conclusion, Mr. Amir stressed the respectability, independence, impartiality and integrity of each member of the Committee.  

One Expert recalled that there had been three decades and conferences devoted to racial discrimination, the last one in Durban in 2001, which had concluded that racism was a universal problem.  There were many victims of racism and racial discrimination, including those of African descent, who continued to suffer the consequences of slavery and colonialism.  When an Expert was asking the State party about the prison population, it was because the composition of the prison population had been identified as the best indicator of racial discrimination.  It was a method for drawing significant conclusions, such as in the case of the United States, which had an overrepresentation of African Americans in prisons.  The Ministry of Health in Brazil, for example, had noted that murder was the most common cause of death among the youth, and that there was a 77 per cent higher chance of death by murder among the black population.

Replies by the Delegation

MANEESH GOBIN, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Institutional Reforms of Mauritius, thanked the Committee Chairperson for his wise words and noted that Mauritius relied a great deal on the Committee’s wisdom.  Mr. Gobin explained that it was not his intention at any point of time to call into question the integrity and independence of the Committee Experts.  States parties were responsible for the elections of those Experts.  What was confusing, however, was accountability and demanding statistics disaggregated by race and community.  The gathering of such statistics could sometimes be counterproductive; it could create stigma and harm the fragile social fabric in the country.  Even tampering with it might lead to dramatic consequences.  Mr. Gobin stressed that the authorities in Mauritius were open to consultations in appropriate fora with appropriate institutions.  

The head of the delegation noted that the consultations with civil society had taken place before the drafting of the State party’s report.  Mauritius had been encouraged to set up a discussion forum between civil society and State bodies on several occasions.  Based on those recommendations, Mauritius had set up the National Mechanism for Reporting and Follow-up in early 2018 to deal with all human rights issues.  Several non-governmental organizations were represented in the mechanism.  

The exact number of Chagossians currently living in Mauritius was not available.  However, according to the last survey carried out by the Chagossian Welfare Fund Board in 2015/2016, there were 308 Chagossian natives and 1,169 second-generation Chagossians living in Mauritius.  There may be other Chagossians living in Mauritius who had not registered.

As for the level of participation of the Chagossians in the process to recover their right to return to the Chagos Archipelago, Mr. Gobin informed that the Government was sensitive to the plight of those who had been forcibly removed from the Chagos Archipelago.  Their representatives were part of the Mauritius official delegation which had attended the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on 22 June 2017, which had adopted a resolution to request an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Island from Mauritius.  They would also form part of the delegation of Mauritius to the public hearings, which would be held by the International Court of Justice from 3 to 6 September 2018.

Turning to the Truth and Justice Commission, Mr. Gobin clarified that many of the claims for dispossession of land dated back to more than 100 years and were time-barred.  As per its report, a land research and mediation unit to continue research on possible dispossession of land had been set up.   The judiciary would welcome the setting up of a dedicated land tribunal to deal with land disputes and with cases of compulsory acquisition of land by the Government.  

On the independence of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the head of the delegation stressed that a measure of independence of institutions should not only be judged on the basis of appointment of its members; it was the integrity of persons that had to be looked at as well.  It did not mean that members appointed by a political organ would be influenced by that organ.  

Although English was the official language and French was widely spoken and written, there were many official activities by the State and non-State actors to promote other languages that were spoken or written in Mauritius, including Creole, Arabic, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Bhojpuri.  The State television had a dedicated channel for programmes in those languages.  Parliament used English and French as official working languages.  In October 2010, the Akademi Kreol Morisien had been set up under the aegis of the Ministry of Education to prepare the grounds for the official introduction of Creole in the primary school education.  
After many years of consultations and discussions, Mauritius had been able to legally define a mandatory minimum wage, which also applied to migrant workers.  Migrant workers often did not have sufficient information about their rights.  Accordingly, the authorities have decided to provide such information to migrant workers directly as of November 2018 in several languages.  The first point of distribution would be at the immigration counter at the airport.  Mauritius cooperated with the United Kingdom and the United States with respect to issues pertaining to trafficking in persons.  

The island of Rodrigues had consistently received particular attention from the Government.  It was not at all neglected.  The Rodrigues Regional Assembly managed their own budget of 3.75 billion rupees for a population of some 40,000.  Most of the provided resources were used for the construction of the drainage system, hospitals, water supply, Internet connectivity, and the airport runway.  Mr. Gobin said that he personally held consultations with the authorities of Rodrigues.  

There was no discrimination against the Rastafarian community.  If there were any perception of discrimination, it was linked with the consumption of cannabis, which was illegal in Mauritius.  The rule of law should prevail and it should apply equally to all citizens.

Second Round of Questions by the Committee Experts

An Expert commended the recommendations made by the Truth and Justice Commission.  Did some land dispossession claims date back to the times of indentured labour?  She commended the intention of Mauritius to establish an intercontinental museum of slavery, as well as Mauritius’ efforts to deal with the legacies of colonialism.  The legacy of the caste system or class hierarchy might still linger in Mauritius.  

Perhaps Mauritius could consider the legalization of cannabis for religious purposes.

Pointing out the vulnerability of domestic workers, another Expert stressed the importance of ratifying the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 189 on domestic workers.  There was a study on Mauritius as a risk area for migrant workers, namely in terms of indebted servitude.  What was the Government doing to combat this?  

What was the Government doing to directly abolish the old caste system, especially when public officials were involved in caste-like discrimination?  What was being done to combat corruption?  

YEMHELHE MINT MOHAMED, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Mauritius, asked about social and health protection of migrant workers, reminding that there were 23,673 migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh.  Could migrant workers achieve naturalization?  What monitoring mechanisms were in place to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers?  What measures had the State party taken to protect children from falling into prostitution?  

What was the legal status of civil society associations?  How did the Government ensure the political representation of minorities and women?  

Replies by the Delegation

MANEESH GOBIN, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Institutional Reforms of Mauritius, explained that the State party had not submitted a follow-up report on time in 2015 because it was going through a transitional period after the general elections.  The new ministry set up to deal with human rights issues would, hopefully, improve the timeliness of reporting.  

Turning to migrant workers and indebted servitude, Mr. Gobin noted that the authorities were increasingly concerned about migrant workers from Bangladesh.  Issues pertaining to indebted servitude included arrangements made in Bangladesh before workers arrived in Mauritius.  The Government had not yet found a sustainable solution for that problem.  The Labour Inspectorate had conducted surprise visits to the housing units for migrant workers.  

The Anti-Corruption Commission set up in 2003 was doing its job in full independence.  Its annual reports were available on the Commission’s website, and courts heard cases referred to them by the Director of Public Prosecutions.  

The law governed the registration of civil society associations.  For the purposes of reporting and follow-up to human rights bodies, it was not important whether they were registered or not for them to be heard.  

Turning to political representation, the law did not specify any quotas for women.  Women made up 50 per cent of judges, and they also occupied other important functions within the Government and the National Assembly in line with the merit-based system.  Mauritius was less successful in electing women to the National Assembly because there were fewer female candidates and because in some constituencies there was a lack of desire of voters for female candidates.  The Government had introduced a quota of a minimum of one third of female candidates for regional, municipality and district-level elections.

The legislative arsenal for combatting child prostitution was in place, Mr. Gobin explained, adding that the Government had sent two experts to the police forces and the Prosecutor’s Office to conduct relevant training.  

Turning to the issue of dispossession of land, the head of the delegation agreed with one Expert’s observation that Mauritius had to “clean up the mess of the colonial times,” and deal with the lingering feeling of discrimination.

Concluding Remarks

YEMHELHE MINT MOHAMED, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Mauritius, thanked the delegation for a constructive and sincere dialogue.  

MANEESH GOBIN, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Institutional Reforms of Mauritius, expressed appreciation for the opportunity provided by the Committee to engage in an interactive dialogue.  Mauritius welcomed and supported the work of the Committee in its entirety and it strongly believed that the United Nations treaty bodies were the best safeguards at the international level to act as watchdogs for human rights.  Mauritius did its best to strengthen the effectiveness of its human rights system, and it had a dynamic and robustly independent judiciary, which played an important role in ensuring the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.  The Government had placed empowerment and reduction of poverty at the heart of its economic programme, conscious that respect for human rights, social justice and integration were essential for the development of the country.

NOUREDDINE AMIR, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation and expressed hope that Mauritius’ next periodic report would contain many positive developments.

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