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Education and minority rights: MRG reports back from the UN Forum on Minority Issues

9 January 2009

More than 200 people, including sustained representation from over 50 state delegations, attended the first United Nations Forum on Minority Issues, held in Geneva on 15-16 December. The Forum was opened by the President of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Forum Chair (Viktória Mohácsi from Hungary). Most of the experts were members of minorities.

The Forum replaced the old Working Group on Minorities, which was abolished in 2007. MRG campaigned extensively to establish the new Forum, the only dedicated mechanism in the UN where minority groups can have their voices heard. Its recommendations will be transmitted by Gay McDougall, the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, straight to the Human Rights Council.

The theme was education, and the findings backed up what Patrick Thornberry, of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said in his opening remarks: ‘Education is one of the most strongly contested issues in the field of minority rights.’

Testimony after testimony bore witness to the fact that across the world, religious, ethnic and linguistic minority groups face similar barriers to accessing this fundamental right.

These barriers include lack of official recognition for their unique identities and lack of access to education of and in mother tongue, lack of disaggregated data by gender and ethnicity, and discrimination in curriculums and in the classroom.

Activists from Bangladesh said, ‘Most of the children from indigenous ethnic minority groups are disadvantaged by an education system that does not recognize their language, culture or religion….when they enter school they are taught in a language they do not know or understand. More than 60 per cent of [these] children drop out especially in the early years.’

In Japan, the government does not recognize what it terms ‘non-national’ communities, which include Korean communities in Japan from the colonial era. Their schools are categorized as vocational, they receive no government subsidies and students’ diplomas do not qualify them to enter Japanese universities. Japanese lawyer Yasuko Morooka said, ‘If you forget your ethnic identity, Japan is not such a bad place for education.’

Diane Abbot, Member of Parliament in the UK, highlighted the importance of disaggregated data. She said 80 per cent of those excluded from schools in London are black boys.

Activists from the USA spoke of the ongoing discrimination for black and Asian pupils, saying, ‘Punishments in schools, from zero tolerance policies to use of police in schools, unfairly target black and Asian students. Corporal punishment is still used disproportionately against students of colour.’ They added that there are higher dropout rates for these students, leading to entry into the criminal justice system.

Thirteen Forum delegates were MRG partners, and came from Pastoralist and Batwa communities in Africa and Roma in South East Europe. Two participants representing Dalits from India were sponsored by MRG to attend the Forum in memory of Atsuko Tanaka-Fox, a long term advocate of minorities at the UN, who died last year. As well as speaking at the Forum, MRG partners participated in a side event organised by MRG to launch the reports, A Double Bind: the Exclusion of Pastoralist Women in the East and Horn of Africa, by Naomi Kipuri and Andrew Ridgewell and The Right to Learn: Batwa Education in the Great Lakes Region of Africa by Fay Warrilow.