18 March 2005
Human Rights Committee Takes Up Report of Mauritius
Experts Praise Creation of National Human Rights Commission but Raise Concerns Regarding Anti-Terrorism Law
NEW YORK, 17 March (UN Headquarters) -- The Human Rights Committee this afternoon began its consideration of Mauritius fourth periodic report on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, hearing from a Government delegation about some recent steps taken to protect and promote fundamental freedoms, widen the scope of protections against domestic violence, promote judicial and education reform, and combat corruption.
Highlighting his countrys reputation as an African success story, where democracy, literacy and free trade were working together to attract investment, create opportunity and raise the hopes of the people, Emmanuel Jean Leung Shing, Mauritius Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Human Rights, said that in spite of economic challenges, the Government had managed to craft a social system that included free education from the primary to the tertiary level, pensions for disabled persons, low-cost housing for the poor, housing grants for the needy, and free health care.
Mauritius was closer than ever to introducing the use of its mother tongue, Creole, in the schools. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was sponsoring a pilot project to allow the use of a childs native language as a means of communication in two primary schools. English was not the first language of many Mauritian children, he said, and instructors could now teach in the language of a childs environment. That would undoubtedly facilitate the integration of many Mauritian children into society, especially those from poorer rural areas, as well as enhance access to education.
Committee experts praised Mauritius creation of a National Human Rights Commission and other activities, but several believed that overall rights coverage in the country was incomplete; that the Covenant had not been fully integrated into domestic laws and that certain sections of the Constitution were silent where they should expressly incorporate and/or reference tenets of the Covenant. One expert chided the delegation for its vague description of Mauritius anti-terrorism law, and asked for assurances that efforts to combat that scourge did not infringe on human rights.
Some of the other concerns that emerged during the experts review of Mauritius implementation efforts centred on troubling reports of ill-treatment of
detainees, including HIV-infected prisoners in one of the countrys prison facilities in 2003. One expert wondered if any cases of abuse by police or law enforcement officers had ever come before the National Human Rights Commission. Others expressed concern about provisions of the countrys five-year-old Drug Enforcement Act, particularly that it permitted an initial 36 hours of detention of suspects without access or legal counsel.
The Committee will reconvene tomorrow at 10 a.m., to hear responses to its questions and conclude its consideration of Mauritius fourth periodic report.
The Committee on Human Rights met this afternoon to consider the fourth periodic report of Mauritius (document CCPR/C/MUS/2004/4).
Representing the Government were: Emmanuel Jean Leung Shing, Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Human Rights; Satyajit Boolell, Acting Parliamentary Council; Aruna Devi Narain, Assistant Parliamentary Council; and from the Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Jagdish Koonjul, Permanent Representative.
Presentation of Report
EMMANUEL JEAN LEUNG SHING, Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Mauritius, said that since its independence, his country had moved from a low-income agriculture-based economy to a middle-income diversified economy, with growing industrial, financial and tourist sectors. The people of Mauritius strongly believed that their economic progress would not have been possible without a firm commitment to the rule of law, good governance, and respect for human rights and democratic institutions, as enshrined in their Constitution. Despite the global economic challenges facing small vulnerable economies, Mauritius had managed to provide a system that included free education from the primary to the tertiary level, social aid in the form of old-age pensions and disability pensions, low-cost housing for the poor, housing grants for the needy, free health care and financial assistance to patients with inoperable conditions.
He said that following the International Meeting on Small Island Development States in January, which, among other things, had addressed the vulnerabilities of States like Mauritius, his country was playing an active role in all regional and international meetings to promote the establishment of an early-warning system in the Indian Ocean against natural disasters. In pursuit of the Governments determination to eradicate poverty and illiteracy, education had been made mandatory for all children up to the age of 16. The Ministry of Education had, in recent years, adopted several bold, long-term reforms, seeking to integrate the pre-vocational stream into all secondary schools. And, no longer would children who had failed their primary school-leaving exams at the age of 11 be ostracized and sent to schools for failed students. There was now a pre-vocational class in every secondary school, and all students, regardless of their level of academic development, participated together in school activities.
Mauritius was closer than ever to introducing the use of its mother tongue, Creole, in the schools. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was sponsoring a pilot pedagogical project to allow the use of the childs native language as a means of communication in two primary schools. English was not the first language of many Mauritian children, and teachers were now having recourse to the language of the childs environment. That would no doubt facilitate the integration of many Mauritian children, especially those from poorer areas and families of the island, making more effective access to education.
The year 2004 had also witnessed the first steps of the office of the ombudsperson for children, which had been established in 2003, he continued. A bill to amend the Ombudsperson for Children Act had recently been introduced in Parliament with the aim of conferring greater powers on that office. Additional reforms had included the Protection from Domestic Violence Act, which had been amended last year so as to widen the scope of the Act and allow persons living under the same roof to seek a protection order against the perpetrator.
He said the Government would soon introduce a protection of the elderly bill, with a view to providing further guarantees towards the protection and welfare of the elderly. A Residential Care Homes Act, passed in 2003, regulated the establishment and operation of care centres, including old persons homes. The Government had also built a recreational centre for the elderly and proposed to build such centres in other parts of the island. Also, in the coming weeks, the Government would introduce legislation making it mandatory for all new buildings to be made accessible to disabled persons. In addition, a Trust Fund for the Social Integration of Vulnerable Groups had been set up to improve the conditions of the lives of such groups and to fight poverty, through the provision of grants and other assistance in the following five priority areas: basic needs; social infrastructure; education; empowerment and the development of the entrepreneurial spirit. The Government would also be setting up a family court.
Noting that a draft bill on equal employment opportunities would be made public shortly, he said his Government remained strongly committed to womens advancement and womens rights and to ensuring an enhanced participation of women in public life. In recent years, there had been a sharp increase in the number of women in senior positions, especially in the public sector. Four of 11 judges were women, and there were 14 women magistrates out of 26. The Deputy Master and Registrar and Judge in Bankruptcy was also a woman. He reiterated his Governments commitment to ensuring womens fuller participation in public life and their advancement. Womens empowerment could only come through education, and with the long-established system of free, and now mandatory education, as well as the academic success of female students, Mauritius was poised to see an increasing number of women professionals and women in public life.
He said his country had also always held free and fair elections, and a bill was being introduced to provide for the presence of international electoral observers, in accordance with the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security. In the aftermath of September 11 and the global concern over terrorism, his Government had followed other jurisdictions in introducing strong counter-terrorism legislation. Every effort had been made in drafting that legislation to protect the individuals constitutional rights. Any questionable legislative provision, any measure taken under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, could be challenged in court and would, no doubt, be struck down, should the court find that it violated the Constitution. Moreover, the judiciary continued to uphold the Constitution in the true spirit of independence and respect for the principle of the separation of powers. Those, in a nutshell, were the main relevant developments in Mauritius since May 2004.
Delegations Response to Written Questions
Responding to a prior written question as to whether Mauritius envisaged taking up measures to enable individuals to enforce their rights under the Covenant directly, a member of the delegation said his Government had not deemed it necessary to provide a direct system of enforcement, since a section of the Constitution had already fulfilled that, albeit indirectly. That section, which provided for enforcement of human rights, was an effective mechanism and did not prejudice enforcement of the Covenant rights, since the Supreme Court of Mauritius had original jurisdiction to hear and determine any contravention of constitutional rights without prejudice to any other action. The National Human Rights Commission was also mandated to investigate any allegation of human rights violations, and where some were disclosed, to refer the matter to the appropriate body. A list of cases that had been referred by the Supreme Court illustrating the circumstances whereby the rights under the Covenant had been enforced by the Supreme Courts judgments had been annexed to the delegations written replies. He then provided details to two relevant cases referred by the Supreme Court.
Turning to the tasks and goals of Mauritius National Human Rights Commission, he stressed that the body could, among other things hear complaints brought by individuals against the police or other law enforcement officials. The Commission was also empowered to review and comment on conditions that hampered the protection and promotion of fundamental rights. Another important function of the Commission was to review the specificities of any and all enactments and legislation to ensure that they conformed with international human rights norms.
He acknowledged that Mauritius had been criticized in the past for allowing law enforcement officials to investigate complaints against police. In response, the Government had created an independent panel to oversee such allegations. He briefly highlighted some statistics from the Commission, including that of the 31 complaints charging police for brutality, 16 had been disposed of, and 10 were still being actively investigated. The results of Commission investigations were made public and presented to the countrys national Assembly, he added.
On the Governments efforts to wipe out discrimination, he stressed that the relevant initiatives aimed also to promote gender equality, and to ensure equality and equity in the workplace. Turning next to Mauritius counter-terrorism measures, he said that although the Government had outlined a stringent set of provisions, those were continually being reviewed. The Government had also undertaken a series of activities to increase the participation of women in decision-making, and there were particularly encouraging signs in the judiciary, where a large number of women worked. In the private sector, much work remained to be done, he said, chiefly to increase the participation of women in areas outside the textile industry.
Another member of the delegation highlighted the creation of a sex discrimination division, within the National Human Rights Commission. That body could review and dismiss certain complaints, or, in other circumstances, take a decision which could include directives to provide compensation. She went on to describe her countrys new domestic violence act, noting that victims could apply to courts for protection orders to cover a range of conduct -- including verbal, as well as physical violence -- that harmed or threatened spouses and/or their children.
The new act also mandated the Womens Ministry or Justice Ministry to carry out investigations. Failure to comply with such orders was an offence punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment for up to two years. An ongoing awareness campaign had resulted in an increase in the reporting of such cases, and community workers were actively involved in setting up sensitivity and human rights training courses.
Turning to the issue of child abuse, another member of the delegation said that, while figures did not support an high incidence of child abuse, as far as the Government was concerned, one case of child abuse was one too many. Every effort must be made to protect the child. The Child Protection Act had led to a better understanding of the rights of the child. As a result of sex education courses in primary schools, more cases of child abuse were being reported. The Child Development Unit, established to develop policies and programmes, worked with other law enforcement agencies and provided 24-hour hotlines, free legal assistance and counselling. The Ombudsman for Children had launched a year-long national campaign that would result in a series of recommendations. The Child Watch Network had been set up to identify at-risk children. The Mauritius Police Force had formed a new unit to act as a watchdog for all forms of child abuse.
Another delegate noted that the 2003 National Childrens Council Act had entered into force in 2004. Membership of the new council was open not only to individuals dedicated to child welfare but also to relevant organizations and agencies. Section 13 of the Act provided for the establishment of a national childrens committee which consisted of boys and girls from different childrens organizations.
On the issue of abortion, she said that according to the criminal code provided, it was an offence for any women to procure her own miscarriage. It was also an offence for physicians to facilitate the means of miscarriage. There was no legislation providing for circumstance under which a woman might resort to abortion. A task force report, however, was considering issues on abortion in relation to maternal health, foetal disabilities, mother victims of rape, and mothers infected with HIV/AIDS.
Regarding provisions of the 2000 Dangerous Drugs Act, another speaker said that act had been passed in the light of the rising scourge of dangerous drugs and their impact on Mauritius. The Act distinguished between the drug dealer and the consumer. It provided for severe penalties in the case of dealers and emphasized the rehabilitation of the drug consumer. An amendment to the act sought to reinforce the distinction between dealers and consumers by providing for lighter sentences for consumers. Further safeguards were provided for accurate custody record regarding detention. The decision to detain individuals charged with drug offences could be challenged.
Turning to efforts to prevent ill-treatment, torture or death of persons in police custody, he stressed that the Supreme Court served as a major deterrent to such practices because it could accept urgent applications to review complaints brought by individuals. Magistrates could, in turn, order an immediate inquiry into allegations of abuse at the hands of law enforcement officials. In cases of deaths in custody or in prison, magistrates could also order certain forensic investigations, including disinterment, to determine the facts. In addition, a recent amendment to the Criminal Code referred directly to the Covenants language on torture or other harmful humiliating or degrading treatment of detainees.
He went on to detail a wide range of prison reforms under way, including sensitivity training for staff dealing with persons suffering from HIV/AIDS, improved family access, and drug treatment. He said that Mauritius had eight prisons, including one for juveniles -- which currently housed 20 youths -- and one for women.
Experts Questions and Comments
ABDELFATTAH AMOR, the expert from Tunisia, acknowledged ongoing progress in the countrys human rights legislation, including the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission. There seemed to be a number of gaps, however. What had been the impact of the Covenant on the countrys courts? While the provisions of the Covenant were not directly enforceable, they could be invoked before the courts. The Covenant seemed to have a secondary status in terms of the countrys legislation. What was the legal value or standing of the Covenant in Mauritius?
Concerning the law on counter-terrorism, he noted that the report had provided only vague, impressionistic information. While States often had good intentions, they sometimes lost sight of certain facts in the struggle against terrorism. The struggle against terrorism should not take place at any cost. What was the countrys exact position in that regard, and what safeguards had it envisaged to preserve human rights? Also, did the country distinguish between human rights and fundamental rights? Was it true to say that Mauritius recognized a certain form of euthanasia? If so, what safeguards had been taken in that regard? he asked.
On the issue of womens participation in political life, IVAN SHEARER, the expert from Australia, said he had been struck by the recognition of the need to increase womens participation in politics. The main political parties had pledged to field a larger number of women candidates at the general elections to be held later this year. Concerning the issue of domestic violence against women and children, he asked the delegation to provide even a rough idea of the actual situation.
Regarding the question of abortion, he noted that provisions of the present code were currently under review. Had there been any parallel development at the common law level? In his country, judges, even in advance of formal legislative change, had begun to develop exceptions to what appeared to be a blanket prohibition on all abortions.
The expert from Colombia, RAFAEL RIVAS POSADA, praised the efforts of Mauritius to craft a comprehensive Drug Act. At the same time, he was concerned that certain aspects of the law, particularly the processing and treatment of persons detained on drug charges were not consistent with the Covenant. He also reiterated the Committees concern that certain of the countrys laws did not comply with the tenets of the Covenant.
PRAFULLACHANDRA NATWARLAL BHAGWATI, expert from India, concerned about the effect of the Covenant in Mauritius, asked for clarification on the powers and privileges of the National Human Rights Commission. Could the body only make recommendations, or did it have teeth? He also wondered how the members of the Commission were appointed.
ROMAN WIERUSZEWSKI, expert from Poland, asked for further clarification about the anti-discrimination law. Did it cover discrimination concerning sexual orientation? Did it provide any support for long-term studies about the effects of discrimination?
NIGEL RODLEY, expert from the United Kingdom, posed several questions concerning the National Human Rights Commission and procedures to safeguard against abuses by law enforcement officials and public authorities. He asked about the statute of limitations to bring cases before the Commission and expressed concern that that body appeared to treat such issues globally rather than locally. He also shared concerns about the vagueness of the anti-terrorism law. One of the good safeguards in that law -- as well as the drug act -- was the provision for video recordings during the 36-hour detention period. Had any thought been given to putting that to use in other areas?
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