Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers report of Mauritius
NEW YORK, May 11, 2010/African Press Organization (APO)/ — The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has considered the combined second to fourth periodic report of Mauritius (E./C.12/MUS/4) on how that country implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Introducing the report of Mauritius, Shree Baboo Chekitan Servansing, Permanent Representative of Mauritius to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that since its independence, Mauritius had been working toward building a multi-racial and multi-cultural democracy whose foundations were based on the promotion and protection of human rights whether civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights. Just this week Mauritius had held free and fair elections, reflecting the country’s unwavering and deep rooted attachment to the fundamental tenets of democracy. The Government of Mauritius firmly believed in putting people first and creating a more inclusive society with opportunities for all citizens and equality of treatment before the law and where citizens were at the core of all forms of development. This commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights was enshrined in the Constitution which prohibited discrimination by public officials on the basis of race, caste, political opinion, creed, religion, colour, sex, or place of origin. A number of legislative measures had been adopted since the country’s last review before the Committee to further consolidate the human rights legal structure and harmonize national laws with international treaties.
Mr. Servansing also said that in strict compliance with the doctrine of the separation of powers, Mauritius had a dynamic and independent judiciary which played an important role in ensuring the protection of rights and fundamental freedoms and the primacy of the rule of law. Other strong and independent institutions existed to guarantee the rights of citizens, including the National Human Rights Commission, which included a Sex Discrimination Division, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsperson for Children. The National Human Rights Commission was granted accreditation “Status A” by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions and it was governed by the Paris Principles.
Among the questions and issues raised by Committee Experts were the growing problems of intravenous drug use among the population which had led to an increase in violent crime and a surge in the number of HIV infections. The Committee also raised concerns about discussions in Mauritius to reinstitute the death penalty, which had been abolished in the country, in order to deal with the rise in violent crime. Experts asked how Mauritius was protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development in light of the growth of the tourism industry in the country, and the delegation was also asked if the State would consider establishing a minimum wage to protect workers in the country. The Committee raised concerns about poverty on the island of Rodrigues and what was being done to address the low standard of living for its inhabitants.
In closing remarks, Jaime Marchan Romero, Committee Chairperson, said that it had been a very frank discussion and the Committee Experts also appreciated the written information and statistics provided by the delegation, which would serve as a basis for the Committee to draw up specific and tangible recommendations, the spirit of which would be to assist in the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights in Mauritius and ensure there was full implementation of those rights.
Mr. Servansing thanked the Committee for the active and sincere engagement they had with the Committee. The delegation had taken note of all the observations made by the Committee, behind which lay a genuine call for Mauritius to do even better. Mr. Servansing assured the Committee that Mauritius would live up to its obligations under the Covenant and they looked forward to receiving the concluding observations of the Committee, which they hoped would reflect the spirit of dialogue that had prevailed throughout the meeting.
The delegation of Mauritius included representatives from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Empowerment, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Permanent Mission of Geneva to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it will begin its consideration of the initial report of Kazakhstan.
Report of Mauritius
The combined second to fourth periodic report of Mauritius (E./C.12/MUS/4) states that the Government of the Republic of Mauritius seizes this opportunity to reiterate its firm commitment to honouring its obligations under the Covenant and reaffirms that it is only if the appropriate conditions are created that everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights as well as his civil and political rights and that the individual will be able and free to enjoy freedom from fear and want.
The Sex Discrimination Act 2002 came into force on 8 March 2003 and is designed “to provide for the elimination of all forms of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in certain areas of public activity”. The Act prohibits discrimination in employment, in education, in accommodation, in the disposal of property, in companies and partnerships, among others. In addition, the Sex Discrimination Act 2002 in its Part IV also penalizes acts of sexual harassment (defined as unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favours, and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature). With a view to allowing Mauritians of all cultural denominations the opportunity to participate in religious and cultural activities of their choice and to foster harmony and mutual respect, laws have been enacted to provide for the establishment of different cultural centres.
Mauritius does not have an indigenous population. The Mauritian Nation is a multicultural community comprising of descendants of migrants hailing from Africa, Asia and Europe. Yet within a history spanning hardly over three centuries, Mauritius has emerged as a model of Unity in Diversity, where the cultural rights of all components of the population are safeguarded and promoted without any hindrance. It is precisely that Unity in Diversity, which has been the basis for its socio-economic development. The cultural policy of the Government is to provide financial and institutional support to ensure that all practised aspects of arts and culture in Mauritius are preserved and promoted. These aspects include the preservation and promotion of their ancestral languages and traditions. In this endeavour, Government benefits from the collaboration of several stakeholders such as Cultural Centres, socio-cultural organisations, the media (written and spoken), NGOs and the public at large.
Presentation of Report
Shree baboo chekitan servansing, Permanent Representative of Mauritius to the United Nations Office at Geneva, introducing the combined second to fourth periodic report of Mauritius, said he warmly welcomed the opportunity to review together with the Committee the progress of Mauritius under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Since its independence, Mauritius had been working toward building a multi-racial and multi-cultural democracy whose foundations were based on the promotion and protection of human rights whether civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights. Just this week Mauritius had held free and fair elections, reflecting the country’s unwavering and deep rooted attachment to the fundamental tenets of democracy.
Mr. Servansing said that the Government of Mauritius firmly believed in putting people first and creating a more inclusive society with opportunities for all citizens and equality of treatment before the law and where citizens were at the core of all forms of development. This commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights was enshrined in the Constitution which prohibited discrimination by public officials on the basis of race, caste, political opinion, creed, religion, colour, sex, or place of origin.
Mr. Servansing said that in strict compliance with the doctrine of separation of powers, Mauritius had a dynamic and independent judiciary which played an important role in ensuring the protection of rights and fundamental freedoms and the primacy of the rule of law. Other strong and independent institutions existed to guarantee the rights of citizens, including the National Human Rights Commission, which included a Sex Discrimination Division, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsperson for Children. The National Human Rights Commission was granted accreditation “Status A” by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions and it was governed by the Paris Principles.
Mr. Servansing went on to say that a number of legislative measures had been adopted since the country’s last review to further consolidate the human rights legal structure and harmonize national laws with international treaties. This legislation included the HIV and AIDS Act of 2006, the Certificate of Morality Act of 2006, the Imprisonment for Civil Debt (Abolition) Act of 2006, the Borrower Protection Act of 2007, and the act establishing the Truth and Justice Commission of 2008. The Truth and Justice Commission came into operation on 1 February 2009, the day the country commemorated the abolishment of slavery in Mauritius. The purpose of the Commission was to make an assessment of the consequences of slavery and indentured servitude from the colonial period to present and make recommendations on measures to be taken with a view to achieving social justice and national unity.
Mauritius also adopted the Equal Opportunities Act of 2008 which prohibited discrimination based on age, caste, colour, creed, ethnic origin, place of origin, disability, marital status, race, political opinion, sex and sexual orientation in various spheres of activity, namely employment, education, provision of goods, services, or facilities, accommodation, access to premises and sports, disposal of immovable property, and societies, registered associations and clubs. The establishment of an Equal Opportunities Division within the National Human Rights Commission and that of an Equal Opportunities Tribunal with wide powers were provided for in the Act to ensure that the Act was enforceable.
Economic, social and cultural rights were also guaranteed through other pieces of legislation including the Sex Discrimination Act, the Education Act, the Social Aid Act, the National Pensions Act, the Public Health Act, the Employment Rights Act, the Employment Relations Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Non-governmental organizations and numerous support programmes also helped provide services to vulnerable groups and deprived members of society to help enhance enjoyment of these rights.
Mauritius firmly believed that all human rights were indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and it had spared no effort to advance the realization of economic, social and cultural rights for its citizens. This included efforts to combat poverty and enhance social enlistment via free education, health services, a universal old age pension, social security for the elderly, disabled, and widows and their children, free public transport for students and the elderly and other assistance schemes for the needy.
Mauritius had reached most of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals and the country’s deep commitment to human rights had been recognized by many institutions while the 2008 African Report on Child Wellbeing found Mauritius to be the most child friendly country in Africa.
The delegation viewed the monitoring mechanism as an essential element in the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights and as a catalyst for achieving meaningful change. Mr. Servansing said the delegation eagerly awaited the observations and recommendations of the Committee and would give them the serious consideration they deserved.
Mr. Servansing said that the periodic report had been prepared in consultation with a number of civil society stakeholders including non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions and governmental bodies. The report also took into account recommendations made by the Committee after the country’s initial report in 1995.
He also noted that the country had taken a novel approach to reconciling reform, growth and human welfare in the form of the Empowerment Programme. The purpose of this programme was to turn deprivation into adjustment opportunities and to preserve human dignity by integrating unemployed citizens into mainstream society through proper training and adjustment support.
Mr. Servansing said the delegation was also happy to report that they had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and a National Policy Paper and Action Plan had been adopted with a view to ensuring socio-economic integration of persons with disabilities. It was the Government’s policy to ensure no discrimination was made against people with disabilities, but also to empower them to access the labour market. Mauritius was also developing a National Policy for Disabled Children in consultation with non-governmental organizations, while mass awareness campaigns were carried out to inform both parents and children of the rights of disabled children. The Government also encouraged students with disabilities to attend school through scholarship schemes and facilities for disabled students. Children who could not be integrated into the normal school system were educated by government-assisted non-governmental organizations.
In these difficult times of economic crisis and climate change, Mr. Servansing said Mauritius believed it had a credible track record in economic, social and cultural rights, but they were not complacent with their achievements. They would continue to uphold the highest standards of human rights and bring full enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms to their citizens. They wanted to be a human rights island imbued with a human rights culture that was a source of inspiration but was also enforceable and enforced in practice.
The delegation looked forward to hearing the views and observations of the Committee and holding a fruitful dialogue on these issues.
Questions by Experts
The Committee wanted to know whether natural resources belonged to the State or could they belong to the people. For example, if someone discovered a natural resource in the ground beneath them, could they claim ownership of that resource or would it belong to the State? If the State was the owner, how could the population benefit directly or indirectly from these resources?
The delegation was asked whether Mauritius had faced difficulties in enforcing its 200 mile nautical zone because of the existence of islands off their coast belonging to Great Britain. Also, how were coastal zones protected?
The Committee noted that there had been advances made in environmental policy, but it wanted to know what mechanisms were in place to involve the public in the decision making process and what were the mechanisms for addressing environmental complaints filed online by citizens? Also, what remedies were available to address environmental infringements and would these remedies be imposed by a court or another body?
Inquiries were made into what rights were enjoyed by migrants in Mauritius, and if details could be provided about whether immigration was clandestine or largely legal. Did foreigners enjoy the same rights as citizens and was Mauritius considering ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Covenant? Also, what information could be provided on the types of residency permits available to immigrants?
A Committee Expert noted that Mauritius had abolished the death penalty in the 1990s, and asked if the delegation could then explain why they were considering reinstituting the death penalty.
The World Bank rated Mauritius as the best place in Africa to do business and it had a very high literacy rate, but this was being undermined by the problem of drugs. What was being done to address this growing issue?
The Committee also asked whether there was human rights education in the country and what was being done to educate people about their economic, social and cultural rights?
The Committee expressed concern that Mauritius’ National Action Plan for Human Rights did not seem to include economic, social and cultural rights and neither did the Constitution. Would something be added to these laws or the Constitution to reflect these rights? What was the National Human Rights Commission empowered to do? Was there overlap with the Office of the Ombudsman? Could it take up economic, social and cultural rights issues? What role did the courts play in these rights and had they used international treaties in case law? Also, what body dealt with questions of whether national law was in line with international treaties?
A Committee Expert raised the issue of Mauritian creoles who had complained of unfair treatment and there seemed to be discrimination based on poverty.
The Committee wanted to know what had been the practical result of the Men as Partners Programme. How had it increased equal rights between men and women and had it increased the number of women in leadership positions in public life?
The delegation was asked to clarify what it meant in its report when it said that the principles of the Covenant had not been expressly written into their laws, but that the Supreme Court had referred to them time and time again. What did that mean? Also, what rights were encompassed by the right to life?
The Committee found that there were Constitutional provisions that appeared discriminatory toward women in the areas of inheritance, divorce and abortion. Was domestic violence a crime and what was the punishment for this?
Response by Delegation
Shree baboo chekitan servansing, Permanent Representative of Mauritius to the United Nations Office at Geneva, addressed the Committee’s concerns about the possible reintroduction of the death penalty by saying that the Prime Minister had always been tough on crime and as a result of reforms the crime rate had dropped. Still, there had been some heinous crimes as of late which had drawn public criticism so the Prime Minister was very aware and concerned about the issue. In the elections, the issues of law and order were high on the platforms of all the parties and the public was demanding answers from politicians. The discussion of the reintroduction of the death penalty had to be seen in this context. Of course, the country had a legislative process and there was no movement at this time to propose legislation to reintroduce the death penalty. The reports one had heard about the prime minister threatening to be tougher on crime were true, but any legislation proposing that had to be voted on in parliament.
On the issue of drugs, Mr. Servansing pointed out that drug abuse and trafficking were world wide problems, but for small island countries such as Mauritius they represented an especially difficult challenge. Drug abuse had been limited to pockets in marginal areas, but now it had gained greater incidence in several layers of society. Having said that, drug use was not at the alarming level the Committee had been led to believe and it was still a marginal problem. International drug traffickers increasingly sought to exploit the geographic vulnerabilities of small island countries and this had a serious effect on internal drug demand as Mauritius was on a transit route. Small islands also had porous borders and it was impossible to police all the borders and illicit drug traffic. In terms of tourism, which was increasingly becoming the victim of its own success, it was a key economic pillar for the nation and the strategy was to increase tourism up to 2 million arrivals per year. This would pose further challenges in combating drug trafficking as it would be impossible to police every tourist coming in who might be carrying drugs. So there was an attempt to balance safety and security concerns with the image they wanted to project as a safe and welcoming tourist destination.
The country had not been ignoring the problem, however. They had adopted a three-pronged approach including supply and demand reduction, education, and treatment and rehabilitation and they had signed regional and bilateral agreements with countries like Madagascar and the Seychelles to exchange best practices.
In terms of peaceful coexistence of various ethnic and religious groups, Mr. Servansing explained that Mauritius was a colonial artefact that was created. It had no native people; they were all brought in by colonists. There was no real conflict among groups. Whether some groups were disadvantaged was not a consequence of deliberate government policy but rather a result of historical events like slavery. The Government had taken deliberate steps to integrate these people into mainstream society through education and housing policy.
The delegation responded to the numerous questions raised about the lack of harmonization and inclusion of the rights of the Covenant into the Constitution or other laws of the State. The delegation assured the Committee that this was not because these laws were held in low regard, but because the Constitution dated back to 1968 at a time when economic, social and cultural rights may not have figured as prominently in constitutions as they did now. The process to amend the Constitution was a very difficult one. Having said that, the delegation informed the Committee that the Law Reform Commission had undertaken work on the matter and in January 2010 filed a report recommending that economic, social and cultural rights be guaranteed in the Constitution; it laid out concrete ways in which this could be done. There was also political momentum in terms of including these rights and this might lead to a general overhaul of the Constitution rather than piecemeal reform so that it would expressly guarantee economic, social and cultural rights and possibly lead to accession to the Optional Protocol.
Regarding whether people could bring claims under the Covenant, the National Human Rights Commission had the mandate to look into any claims of violations of economic, social and cultural rights and would not reject such petitions, although an amendment to the law would make this mandate clearer.
The delegation said that there had been no jurisprudence based on the right to life yet, but in terms of defining it, it was defined as the right to a life of dignity and required the Government to fight extreme poverty and to ensure that people were afforded a decent standard of living.
In terms of the sovereignty of the maritime areas around Mauritius, the country did subscribe to the Law of the Sea as enshrined in the Montego Bay Convention and they had their own Maritime Zones Act as well, which defined their exclusive maritime economic zones. They disputed the claim of sovereignty by Great Britain of the Chagos island archipelago near Mauritius and the United Kingdom had recently unilaterally proclaimed the area around this archipelago as a marine protected zone which meant there was no fishing there so they were contesting this. The State also had a dispute with France regarding sovereignty of Tromelin Island, but they were working this out with France in a much friendlier manner. They also had some delimitation agreements with France and the Seychelles regarding other islands. Regarding patrolling of these areas, Mauritius had patrolling vessels and they recently received a helicopter to better police the waters.
Regarding the issue of the occupation permit and whether it was discriminatory, this regime was aimed at attracting investors, but they also welcomed other citizens who could receive a residence permit if they met the conditions in the immigration act.
A Committee member had asked about the powers of the Supreme Court in enforcing the articles of the Covenant and the delegation said that the Supreme Court had the power of judicial and constitutional review and a wide jurisdiction to announce whether a particular law was unreasonable or an abuse of power so they could review measures taken by the Government or enacted by the assembly. According to Mauritian law, a law had to be enacted to make the provision of conventions and treaties applicable to law in Mauritius; it was not automatically so just because the treaties had been ratified.
The delegation then turned to the question of whether there was an overlap between the National Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman. The Office of the Ombudsman was provided for in the Constitution and looked into issues of mal-administration while the National Human Rights Commission was established by an act of parliament and had a wider mandate. The delegation agreed that the National Action Plan for Human Rights should include economic, social and cultural rights. The plan was still in draft form, but the delegation believed these rights should be addressed and provided for in the National Action Plan for Human Rights.
With regard to the innovative Men as Partners programme, it had been found to be productive and efficient with 13,296 persons in 15 regions participating. But the benefits went far beyond those participants because it helped change the thinking. There were also penal sanctions for domestic violence, but the real way to address this was not through the criminal angle but by sensitizing people, men in particular, and educating people. Social workers and people on the ground said this programme had had a considerable change on the mentality.
Sexual orientation was protected under the Equal Opportunities Act and anyone who felt they had been discriminated against based on sexual orientation would be able to go to the Employment Commission or Employment Tribunal to seek remedy.
The delegation wanted to assure the Committee that a number of measures had been taken to create conditions for sustainable development. Environmental acts had been amended often and people could complain online where they could also find detailed information on how these complaints would be dealt with as well as a list of agencies responsible for various types of complaints and their contact information. There was also a special hotline for people to call for additional information.
The State was currently working on a plan to implement human rights education into school curricula, which included revising textbooks used in primary and secondary schools. There were also advocacy programmes and activities that promoted this information including essay, song, poem and poster competitions to sensitize people on the topic of human rights issues.
Concerning migrant workers, there was new legislation passed in the Employment Rights Act and Employment Relations Act which provided avenues for workers to file complaints and seek redress. There were also regular inspection visits carried out at workplaces known to employ migrant workers by the Ministry of Labour’s special migration unit to make sure migrant workers were being treated fairly. There were currently 30,000 migrant workers in the country, very few of whom were illegal (an estimated 900 cases).
In terms of the rights of persons with disability, this issue was addressed in several ways. The building code required that buildings be accessible to handicapped persons and buses were also equipped so as to provide access to wheelchairs. There was an ongoing campaign to educate people about the rights of the disabled and a special needs programme had been initiated by the Ministry of Education to integrate disabled children into mainstream schools with a view to offering equal access to good education. There was also a review underway of the social security system with the help of the World Bank in an effort to approve that system’s service for people with disabilities so the State had taken a comprehensive view to improving the lot of disabled persons.
Questions by Experts
In follow-up questions, among other issues, Experts requested clarification on the possibility of constitutional reform in the future, and asked if there were legal norms on the books or in the present Constitution that undermined the legal equality for women in the areas of inheritance, adoption, and divorce. Also, were there other areas of discrimination against women that the State had not addressed due to cultural norms or sensitivities?
The Committee also pointed out that there also seemed to be little statistical data on inequalities in income distribution and the impact this had on the population and it asked if the delegation could provide further data on this topic.
Response by Delegation
Responding to the issue of gender equality, the delegation said that in fact many changes had been made recently with the passing of the Equal Opportunities Act, and although full implementation was not yet in place the intention was there to address the issue of gender inequality. There might have been inequalities in pay, but that was not based on law and could be attributed to the nature of the work being done, for example in the agricultural sector. Regarding inconsistencies in the law for the rights of women, there were exceptions made to accommodate the Muslim faith.
Income inequality was not very high but the share of income going to the top 20 per cent had increased slightly compared to those in the lower 20 per cent. Inflation had been quite high in past years and that had caused discrepancies in terms of income distribution as well. As Mauritius imported most of its food, vulnerable groups were particularly hard hit by inflation, but there were institutional mechanisms in place to close this gap.
Questions by Experts
In follow-up comments, Experts noted that the State should not be required to accommodate regressive interpretations of Islam at the expense of women’s rights.
The Government had drafted a new labour law and the Committee wanted to know if this bill had been adopted or not.
The Committee begged to differ with the delegation’s assertion that there was no glass ceiling for women as the data showed there was a huge gender gap in the diplomatic ranks and technical professions. Also, there appeared to be a lack of equal pay for equal work and discrepancies in the minimum pay for men and women.
The Committee also wanted to know if there had been any measures undertaken to look into the root causes of unemployment and whether the Government would take steps to guarantee a minimum wage. Also, there were indications that there were insufficient numbers of labour inspectors to enforce workplace safety rules.
The Committee expressed concern that the right to social security was not in the Constitution. In relation to paternity leave, the Committee asked why it was only available to men who had civil or religious marriages. Wasn’t it possible to be a father regardless of marital status? Were there any efforts to increase coverage of social aid so that it covered non-citizens as well?
What rights did trade unions have to strike and what were the rights of migrant workers in general and in terms of forming and belonging to trade unions? Also, could additional information be provided on which sectors the 30,000 migrant workers worked in?
Response by Delegation
On the issue of the glass ceiling, the delegation said what it understood by the glass ceiling in Mauritius was that women must have the opportunity to go as far they wanted to go. The lack of women in certain fields such as the diplomatic or technical arenas might be a reflection of personal choice as more women choose to go into teaching versus the technical fields for example. In terms of equal pay for equal work, section 20 of the Employment Rights Act required employers and job contractors to pay equal pay for equal work and this was enforceable by law. Regarding paternity leave, the delegation could not agree more that the law should have nothing to do with marriage but rather with paternity, but the motivation behind the rule might have been to prevent abuse, but that was no justification. The delegation would recommend that this be changed.
In terms of the right of workers to strike, the power for the Government to declare a strike illegal as laid out in the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) had been repealed under section 76 of the Employment Rights Act. If a strike or lockout was deemed to pose a threat to the life, health, and public safety of the citizenry, then the Prime Minister could appeal to the employment tribunal or appeal to the Supreme Court for an injunction, but there was now the added safety of the court having to review the strike action. These provisions of the law applied equally to migrant workers.
The delegation said there were 40,000 unemployed people in the country and there was ongoing capacity development work to train people in the sectors where there was a demand for jobs. Migrants worked largely in three sectors including construction with workers mainly from China, the textile sector with workers from Sri Lanka, India, China and Bangladesh, and the professional sector comprising financial and IT services. There were not that many migrants in the tourism sector. In terms of guaranteeing a minimum wage, the delegation asserted that the Government preferred to let the free market determine the value of the work as workers were often paid more than the minimum wage that was required by law when the market was allowed to work. So letting the free market operate was often more beneficial for employees.
Questions by Experts
In follow-up questions, some Experts expressed doubts about letting the free market dictate the minimum wage for workers, and asked if the delegation could provide information on what percentage of people worked in the informal sector and what rights did these people have to a minimum wage, social security, and other protections. The Committee also wanted to know what impact drug trafficking had on the employment sector as that could often be more lucrative than working in the formal sector.
Response by Delegation
The delegation said there was no minimum wage in Mauritius, but they did have remuneration orders for various sectors which acted as a minimum wage control. People were often paid more than the minimum wage across sectors including transport and textiles. Regarding social security, there was already a widespread plan of pension coverage that included elderly people, widows and orphans, but because it was non contributory there was a question as to how they could sustain it. Already it made up 20 per cent of State expenditures so if they wanted to raise those payments they would have to raise taxes because the Government could not afford that.
In terms of the impact of the financial crisis, the unemployment rate was between 7 per cent and 8 per cent and actions had been taken to help the most vulnerable members of society by making large investments in airport, port and road construction projects to keep construction workers employed, a food security fund of 1 billion rupees, vocational training and micro-financing schemes.
Regarding the offshore banking industry, their offshore banking did not launder drug money and their reputation was very important because once a reputation was sullied that was the end of the business.
Looking at the formal versus informal economy, according to the delegation the informal economy was very small in Mauritius and most people were self-employed.
Question by Experts
The Committee asked the delegation if the State had criminalized trafficking in persons, outlawed corporal punishment, and criminalized marital rape. It also wanted to know what was the status of children born out of wedlock and what rights did cohabitating couples have in comparison to married couples? Due to religious sensitivities, was polygamy allowed in Mauritius? What were the grounds for divorce and were they equal for men and women and what was the legal marriage age for girls?
Looking at the growing drug problem, the Committee was interested in knowing what studies had been done on the social causes underlying the rise in drug use. Also, what was the social impact of drug use on society and the family and did it have an impact on corruption levels in the State? Was prostitution legalized and how did the delegation explain the large numbers of child prostitutes?
An Expert asked about the particularly dire situation on the island of Rodrigues which had a number of poverty indicators. The Committee expressed concerns about this island in 1995. How had things improved since then and what was being done to enhance the quality of life for these people. Also, what was being done to combat rural poverty?
The Committee expressed concern about the explosion in the number of new HIV infections, fuelled in large part by intravenous drug use. What was the Government doing to address this issue?
Referring to the delegation’s assertion that they had no official poverty line, the Committee asked how could they know how effective their poverty programmes were and who they were targeting.
The delegation was also asked what measures were being taken in the area of reproductive health and to combat sexual abuse of children.
How did the State maintain a balance between promoting tourism and protecting the environment?
Response by Delegation
Regarding the increase of HIV infections, the delegation said it was a fact that there had been an increase in infections of late. It was also true that this increase was driven by intravenous drug use. The delegation said that what was being done was not enough, and they needed to expand programmes in scope and depth. They had started addressing the issue from the drug perspective versus solely from the sexual transmission perspective. The State also offered methadone clinics and needle exchange programmes, but it needed to increase efforts to keep this from becoming a scourge that would really endanger the safety of people.
In terms of domestic violence, a person could be prosecuted for assault under the criminal code, but there was no offence of domestic violence on the books as such. Emergency protection orders were also available and if such an order was violated that was also a criminal offense. Marriage laws did not expressly say whether someone could be prosecuted for marital rape, although one case had been successfully tried and marriage did not make a perpetrator immune from prosecution for assault. Assault of a child could be prosecuted under the Child Protection Act and corporal punishment was not outlawed per se, but it could theoretically be charged under the Child Protection Act as well. The reason there were so few of these cases tried was that children rarely brought cases against their parents unless they ended up in the hospital or a teacher or someone else noticed signs of abuse. The Ombudsperson for Children had worked tirelessly to bring attention to this issue, educate people and sensitize them to the fact that corporal punishment damaged children both physically and psychologically.
Illegitimate children were treated the same as legitimate children and authorities tried to make sure there was no stigma attached to them. Polygamy was not legal and cases had been successfully prosecuted. The legal marriage age was 18 but could be lowered to 16 for girls with a judge’s approval. Divorce was also open to both men and women and women were treated equally before the law and had access to free legal aid if they could not afford a lawyer.
There was a 2009 anti-trafficking law in force whose purpose was to combat trafficking and help victims of trafficking.
On the issue of corruption, the State had worked to combat corruption in all its forms by establishing the Independent Commission against Corruption. The body enjoyed investigative and prosecutorial powers and it worked to educate people about the ill effects of corruption.
The delegation said prostitution was not legal in Mauritius and child prostitution was not tolerated there. They had taken strong measures to combat this problem such as amending the Child Protection Act by adding prison sentences and fines for people convicted of child exploitation, child mentoring schemes to prevent kids from becoming victims of child prostitution, and working with the tourism industry to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children. They had also implemented a national plan of action to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children which allowed for increased police patrols in high risk areas, drop in centres for at risk youth, and education and sensitizing campaigns. One of the main problems they found in combating this problem on the ground was that it was often parents who forced kids into prostitution because of poverty and children were reluctant to report their parents to authorities. They tried to reach out to kids to tell them there were other options open to them and to get the children to cooperate in prosecutions against their parents. Police were cracking down on child prostitution rings. They were also working on a children’s bill that would allow them to address the rights of the child in a holistic manner, rather than in a piecemeal fashion.
The delegation told the Committee that the minimum age for employment was 16 and strong action was taken by the Ministry of Labour against child labour.
Turning to the island of Rodrigues, the delegation said that as part of Mauritius its inhabitants enjoyed the same rights and access to services as everyone else. The major issue was the lack of availability of water which affected the major industries of agriculture and cattle ranching. The island received much less rain than the rest of Mauritius and this had been compounded by a drought. The people of Rodrigues had been encouraged to branch out to fishing to take advantage of the sea in order to diversify their economy. They also provided various forms of help through the European Development Fund. With these positive measures, the delegation expected to see improvements in the living conditions on the island.
The delegation provided additional printed information on poverty, migrant workers, unemployment and HIV/AIDS to the Committee. In terms of poverty on the island of Rodrigues, the delegation said the island was part and parcel of Mauritius and the State had invested a great deal of money to help improve the living conditions on the island. The United Nations Development Programme and the European Union also gave much assistance to the island and there were several empowerment programmes to promote sustainable development on Rodrigues. The State had also extended subsidized loans to fisherman to help them grow their businesses as well as water development and irrigation projects to help the agricultural sector on the island.
According to the delegation, poverty was not a huge problem in Mauritius, but there were programmes to address what poverty there was in the country. The Empowerment Programme provided micro-financing, vocational training and retraining to assist people who had been laid off and wanted to start their own business or gain skills to obtain other jobs. There were 7,000 households who were also assisted by this programme to provide among other things subsidized school lunches for children and subsidized housing for poor families. Fifty five per cent of the country’s budget went to spending on social services, the largest expenditure of which was for education followed by social security, health and housing. The delegation said this demonstrated that the State was taking care of the most vulnerable members in society.
The delegation said that the migrant workers in Mauritius were mostly employed in the textile and construction sectors and there was no distinction in terms of pay because they were contract employees and these contracts had to be approved by the Ministry of Labour.
Regarding HIV/AIDS, the delegation said that over 70 per cent of new AIDS cases were attributable to intravenous drug use and there were many resources devoted to this problem including an AIDS unit in the Ministry of Health. Non communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease were responsible for more than 50 per cent of deaths in the country and as such posed a larger challenge to the healthcare system, according to the delegation.
Concerning the effectiveness of the National Action Plan, the delegation said that the plan had only been in force since 2007 and thus it had not been evaluated yet, but the National Human Rights Commission had received several dozen complaints about various agencies and none had been rejected by the Commission.
With regards to the ownership of resources found beneath the ground, the Government retained the right to prospect for minerals and owned the rights to any petroleum found in the country, while water was considered public domain.
Questions by Experts
A Committee expert asked what was being done for women who were substance abusers as there were reports of unequal treatment for female drug users at drug treatment centres, and if resources had been increased to help meet the growing treatment needs of the population.
The Committee also asked the delegation if their HIV/AIDS data could be broken down year by year so as to provide a basis of comparison across years in the infection rate.
The delegation was asked what was being done in the area of reproductive and sexual health education and if there was the possibility of modifying the law on abortions, which were currently prohibited under all circumstances.
A Committee expert wanted to know what was being done to foster sustainable development and to protect the environment as tourism to the country increased.
Response by Delegation
Regarding resources devoted to women’s substance abuse health, the delegation said expenditures had been increased across the board in healthcare. There were a number of international, public and private partnerships to help funnel money to this problem including a Corporate Social Responsibility Fund.
The delegation pointed out that for HIV/AIDS infection rates there were statistics available by year for 2009 and the rest of the figures were cumulative for 1987 through 2009.
In terms of the environment, a new policy framework for sustainable development was set up a few years back with the United Nations Development Fund and the World Bank to finance programmes to support sustainable development and protect the environment. They had also undertaken a major project to increase their waste water treatment from 40 per cent of the population to 70 per cent of the population. The next great challenge faced by the State was energy consumption and consumption.
Looking at reproductive health and abortions in the country, the delegation said it was true that abortion was prohibited in all cases, including cases of rape and cases in which the mother’s life was in danger. However, some developments had taken place recently including prosecutors ceasing to prosecute women who had abortions that stemmed from abuse. According to the delegation, this was indicative of a change in the mindset of the population whereby women who were victims should not be further penalized. This change in thinking might lead to further changes in the future.
Questions by Experts
The Committee wanted to know whether free education applied just to primary school or did it also extend to secondary school and higher education? Also, the Committee expressed concerns that there was a growing inequality in terms of the quality of education available to students because some parents were able to provide for private tuition for their children to ensure extra enrichment after school was over. Could environmental awareness be incorporated into the human rights education programme? In addition, Committee Experts wanted to know what efforts were being taken to combat high school dropout rates, particularly for girls who could drift into prostitution.
The Committee also was curious if the delegation could explain the notion of communal identity and its impact on the community and the right to take part in cultural life? Along this line of questioning, the Committee asked if there were segregated schools for different religious sects.
The Committee was also interested in what access to the Internet was available to vulnerable groups.
The Committee asked the delegation if it could explain how Mauritius was able to construct a Mauritian identity while at the same time promoting individual cultures and ethic groups.
Response by Delegation
Regarding the cost of education, the delegation said that schooling was free at all levels from pre-primary to tertiary education.
The delegation said that they were conscious of the competition there was between students to get into good schools and so they were reforming the way children were streamed into schools to make it more equitable. The delegation informed the Committee that it was also illegal for parents to provide additional education for their children up to the age of nine and there was talk of extending this age. This was an effort to decrease some of the inequalities seen in access to education and enrichment. The delegation also informed the Committee that environmental education was a core subject in school and was already included in the curriculum. Courses in environmental studies had to be passed by students before they could move on from secondary school.
In terms of access to the Internet, Mauritius was quite ahead of other nations according to the delegation and it led African nations in terms of hardware, access, and education.
The delegation conceded that the dropout rate was high, 35 per cent for primary school aged kids, but it had dropped to 25 per cent for the 2008-2009 school year. There was pre-vocational education for those who dropped out of school and apprenticeship programmes as well as to help provide skills and training. In terms of religious schools, the delegation said they could be established at their own expense and no one would be prohibited from sending their kids to these schools. They all had to be registered with the Ministry of Education and had to comply with all Ministry of Education standards.
Mauritius had a number of State-funded cultural centres to help promote individual cultures, but there was also a Mauritian cultural centre to help promote Mauritian identity. The goal of the State was to use the cultural diversity and the differences in the country as a strength in building understanding and unity rather than to create a false homogeneity.
In terms of how this diversity played out in political life, the delegation explained an aspect of Mauritius’ political system that was meant to ensure minority representation, but that was now being questioned in the courts. For reasons of political apportionment, political candidates were asked to choose one of four ethnicities to ensure equal representation in the legislature, but in the 2005 election some candidates refused to declare a community and when their candidatures were invalidated, they filed a complaint saying they did not want to do this because it undermined Mauritian identity. It was now the generally held view that this aspect of the electoral system of declaring a community had outlived its usefulness and while it was required after independence to ensure that minorities were represented politically, it was not necessary now.
Questions by Experts
The Committee said it was their understanding that the Human Rights Committee was looking into this idea of communal identity. If the Human Right Committee were to rule against this idea, would Mauritius then invalidate it?
The Committee also asked if it was true that the State was planning to eliminate certain education priority zones and what would replace them if this was in fact the case.
Response by Delegation
The delegation said there was no intention of getting rid of the education priority zones, which included school lunches and after school enrichment programmes.
JAIME MARCHAN ROMERO, Committee Chairperson, in closing remarks, said that it had been a great pleasure to have the delegation from Mauritius present their report and the Committee very much appreciated what the delegation had provided in the way of answers. It had been a very frank discussion and the Committee Experts appreciated the written information and statistics provided by the delegation as well. All of this would serve as a basis for the Committee to draw up specific and tangible recommendations, the spirit of which would be to assist in the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights in Mauritius and ensure there was full implementation of those rights. They were happy to see that Mauritius enjoyed a vibrant democracy and welfare state, two excellent tools that provided a favourable environment for the implementation of these rights. The presentation of the second through fourth periodic report made good on a fifteen year gap between the initial periodic report and these reports.
SHREE BABOO CHEKITAN SERVANSING, Permanent Representative of Mauritius to the United Nations Office at Geneva, wanted to convey the delegation’s sincere thanks for the active and sincere engagement they had regarding Mauritius’ second through fourth periodic report. The delegation was grateful for the genuine interest the Committee had shown and the observations they had contributed. The delegation had taken note of all the observations made by the Committee, behind which lay a genuine call for Mauritius to do even better. The delegation was very respectful of the mission of the Committee and would take these observations back to their country and reflect on them with an open mind and with a view to strengthening the protection and promotion of economic, social and cultural rights in the country. Mr. Servansing assured the Committee that Mauritius would live up to its obligations under the Covenant and they looked forward to receiving the concluding observations of the Committee, which they hoped would reflect the spirit of dialogue that had prevailed throughout the meeting.
UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights