15.01.2009 -

Interview of Professor Gay McDougall on her work, the first Forum on Minority Issues and why education was the obvious choice as theme

Professor Gay McDougall

On July 29, 2005 Professor Gay McDougall, was appointed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, as the first holder of the position of Independent Expert on minority issues

A human rights lawyer, Ms McDougall served as an Independent Expert on the UN treaty body that oversees the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and on the UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

As Special Rapporteur on the issue of systematic rape and sexual slavery practices in armed conflict, she presented a groundbreaking study calling for international legal standards for the prosecution of such acts. She was one of five international members of South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission, which successfully organized and administered that country's first non-racial elections.

She answers questions on her work, the first Forum on Minority Issues and why education was the obvious choice as theme.

What is an Independent Expert and what does your work entail?
An independent expert is much the same as a special rapporteur. We are chosen by the members of the UN Human Rights Council to look deeply into issues connected with rights. My mandate is to look at minority issues and promote the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1992. Concretely I produce annual thematic reports and make two country visits a year which are reported back to the Human Rights Council.

How did the Minority Issues Forum come into existence?
When the Human Rights Council underwent a process of reform one of the issues was raised was how to strengthen its mechanisms and one outcome of this was the establishment of a completely new mechanism which was the Forum on Minority Issues. It is to be held every year and to serve as a platform for dialogue and cooperation on issues concerning minorities. It also contributes thematic expertise to my work and helps to identify and analyse best practices from a wide range of sources.

Why was education chosen as the theme for the inaugural Forum?
In the three years I have been doing this work there is really no other issue that I have identified that is as uniformly or consistently a priority for minorities around the world as education. Minority groups are consistently locked out from access to real quality education. They are blocked by a compound set of factors which form a part of the discrimination they face every day.

What is the single most important change that could be brought about which would positively affect minority peoples’ access to education?
This is an extremely complex issue and much as I would like there to be a single answer there isn’t! However, there are many global rights instruments already in place that have built a normative framework at the international level and we need to focus on those. Among them is the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education,the UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Forum helps to give more focus to these legal instruments and by highlighting best practices we show how they can be implemented.

The way to approach the subject of minorities is from a viewpoint of non-discrimination and the fact that these people have the same rights as the general population. We must focus on de-isolating minorities from larger communities.

Can you give some examples of this in practice?
Best practices in multicultural education show us that for minority peoples to be included, the learning environment must be non-hostile. The minority child should feel fully empowered in keeping his or her cultural identity and the larger majority should be taught to respect the minority culture. In the case of new minorities migrating to a country the host country should undertake to guarantee their rights and that includes the right to education. For nomadic populations we should look at the dual responsibilities of neighbouring states to provide equal access to education.

Do you see significant change taking place?
At the international level some pressure has been placed on governments which have responded by developing national level frameworks and policies. However, there are also many countries where local authorities have power over schooling and often it is at this level that prejudice is strongest. National policies are good but are often ignored or should I say defied at the national level

What are you hopes for this Forum?
The Forum creates a space for dialogue and most importantly it is led by minority voices. In the case of the first forum the experts in minority education were themselves minorities and best placed to talk about their challenges and needs. Secondly it is a way for governments and specialised agencies to exchange, clarify and refine their best practices.

Video message to the forum from the Assistant-Director General for Education, UNESCO Nicholas Burnett

OHCHR Forum on Minority Issues

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