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Namibian minorities workshop sparks debate over commitment to constitutional rights

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The Namibian Government must take urgent steps to fulfil its obligations towards minorities and indigenous peoples including the San whose situation continues to deteriorate despite constitutional provisions to guarantee their rights. Such are the conclusions of minorities and indigenous peoples following a workshop on advocacy and minority rights held in Windhoek, Namibia on 15 and 16 July 2003. The Workshop coincided with the Afrikaans launch of the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) report ‘Minorities in Independent Namibia’, which has sparked debate over Namibian Government policy.

In a statement issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Permanent Secretary Mocks Shivute, listed positive steps taken by the Namibian Government. Speaking of the San bushmen he stated that ‘The San enjoy the same constitutional rights and freedoms as all Namibians and they are even encouraged to participate in the regular general and presidential elections in the country’.

This position was challenged by minority and indigenous participants, who claim continuing discrimination, exclusion and marginalization. The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), co-organizers of the workshop with MRG, in its own statement of 17 July, acknowledged the existence of constitutional guarantees for the protection of the rights of individuals and groups in Namibia. However, in practice, they stated that these provisions were ‘…not respected and sometimes publicly condemned and regarded as an obstacle by high-ranking government officials’.

The Windhoek event aimed to promote better understanding and cooperation between minority communities and indigenous peoples from a cross-section of minority groups, inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, media, academics and Government representatives in Namibia. Attracting over 60 participants, including representatives from nine indigenous groups, the workshop created a platform for public debate around issues of protection and promotion of minority and indigenous rights. The event was also attended by representatives of the Namibian Ministry of Land, Tourism and Development.

The workshop drew attention to the present status of minorities and indigenous peoples in Namibia, offering an opportunity for participants to exchange information and to share knowledge of international instruments and their application to current issues. In establishing where the government and United Nations bodies are failing to address problems relating to Namibia’s minorities and indigenous peoples, the workshop issued several recommendations. Of particular importance among these, is the NSHR call for the Government to recognize all ethnic, national or linguistic minorities and their traditional leaders as a step towards establishing their rights. This, the rights group believe, would also be an important move towards maintaining peace, justice and stability within Namibia.

Those present were invited to identify strategies to promote minority rights in Namibia based on their community experience. Issues discussed included the land tenure system, including rights of access to ancestral land and communal land use; marginalization of minority community groups in health, education and decision making; equal access to opportunities and resources; self-empowerment and gender concerns; and measures to remove social prejudice against minority communities.

The report ‘Minorities in Independent Namibia’ is available online.

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