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Botswana must amend discriminatory tribal policies says UN Committee

30 March 2005

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has maintained pressure on the government of Botswana regarding what it considers to be the discriminatory effects of tribal legislation and elements of Botswana’s Constitution on minority tribal groups. In a 10 March letter to the government, the Chair of CERD, Mr Mario Yutzis, stressed Botswana’s clear obligations under the terms of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the fact that it prohibits both direct and indirect forms of discrimination. The CERD communication comes as fears grow amongst minority groups in Botswana that the government will defy the request.

The Committee has responded to claims from national NGOs and Minority Rights Group International (MRG) that sections of the Tribal Territories Act, the Chieftainship Act and Sections 77 to 79 of the Constitution have discriminatory effect. These Acts recognize only the Tswana-speaking tribes while non-Tswana speaking groups including the Wayeyi and Basarwa/San peoples suffer from cultural, social, economic and political exclusion, do not enjoy group rights to land, and do not participate in the House of Chiefs.

RETENG (the Multicultural Coalition of Botswana) are extremely concerned that the Bill relating to the Chieftainship Act will be passed without amendment, in defiance of the CERD communication, when it is debated in the Botswana’s Parliament next week despite universal objection by non-Tswana speaking groups. National NGOs, MRG and CERD have previously welcomed the government of Botswana’s apparent willingness to enter into constructive dialogue with the Committee and its evident serious consideration of the Committee’s concerns, demonstrated through its recent communications.

The Committee’s communication, which forms part of its mandate to follow up issues of concern directly with states parties, notes that the High Court of Botswana declared the Chieftainship Act discriminatory in a decision adopted in November 2001, and ordered that its section 2 be amended to give equal protection and treatment to all tribes under that Act. The letter additionally draws the attention of the State party to CERD’s General Recommendation XXIV, according to which criteria for recognition of groups should be consistently applied.

The coalition of associations of non-Tswana speaking ethnic groups from Botswana have complained of ‘assimilationist policies’ to UN bodies including CERD and the UN Working Group on Minorities. Such policies deny their linguistic and cultural rights and leave them highly marginalized. Non-Tswana speaking groups, including the Wayeyi, are not recognized or consulted on decisions affecting their lives through their chiefs, and do not have their languages used in education, the national radio and other social domains. The problems facing non-Tswana ethnic groups were described by a RETENG representative, Lydia Ramahobo, as ‘a blemish on Botswana’s deservedly good reputation for democracy and good governance’.

Botswana’s focus on nation building and establishing national unity has been criticized as failing to acknowledge, cherish and nurture the diversity of ethnic groups, languages and cultural traditions represented in the nation. Ethnic groups have suggested that the government is attempting to erase cultures, traditions and languages that are different from the Tswana.