June 9, 2011

UNPO Speaks Out For Batwa At UN Human Rights Council

UNPO in coordination with the Society for Threatened Peoples has spoken out at the 17th Session of the Human Rights Council to express its concerns about Rwanda’s indigenous Batwa population.

Photograph "17th Session- Human Rights Council" courtesy of the United Nations Information Service under a Creative Commons license

UNPO Programme Coordinator Caroline de Bruin delivered her statement during the discussion of Rwanda’s recent Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council. The discussion took place on Tuesday, 7 June at UN Headquarters in Geneva. UNPO highlighted Rwanda’s non-ratification of ILO Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Communities as being of particular concern. This issue is especially pressing in regards to Rwanda’s non-recognition of the existence of minority and indigenous people, which include the Batwa. 

Ms. de Bruin touched upon this issue during her statement, which also expressed UNPO’s concerns about access to shelter and effective political participation for the Batwa:

“STP is concerned that the State ignores or underestimates the severity of marginalisation and discrimination faced by the Batwa. This is exacerbated by the government's refusal to refer to them by name or as indigenous to the region. This has led to gross sidelining of Batwa communities in preparation, planning and implementation of government programmes intended to provide social welfare and development services, and as such often do not benefit from national primary healthcare, clean water and shelter initiatives.

Specifically with regards to shelter, the speed with which the current "Bye-Bye Nyakatsi" campaign to rid the country of grass-thatched houses has been conducted has left many hundreds of families homeless in the interim. Due to their precarious economic situation, the Batwa are disproportionately affected by this campaign. Further measures need to be taken to significantly improve access of members of the Batwa community to education, employment and occupation in order for the government not to be complicit in furthering national inequality.

The refusal of the State to recognize the Batwa as a minority or indigenous leaves the Batwa community with no legal status or recognition and, being numerically small, they are prevented from actively engaging in political activities at the national level.”

During his closing remarks, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Rwanda Tharcisse Karugarama responded critically, referring to these comments of UNPO and other NGOs as ‘unfortunate’ and accusing the organizations of making statements that are ‘careless and do not reflect the reality on the ground’. Following this, Mr. Karugarama called out Caroline de Bruin by name, questioning whether she had ever been to Rwanda and inviting her to come see the situation on the ground for herself. In his country’s defense, Mr. Karugarama offered that legislative interventions are taken in consideration of national concerns based on consensus.

Accusations of reporting from NGOs taking place without first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground are, at least in the case of UNPO, baseless. On the contrary, all of UNPO’s information about the Batwa comes from the first-hand, on the ground observations of both UNPO Staff and local UNPO Member representatives. To cite the most recent example, during a field expedition to Rwanda six months ago (December 2010), UNPO Programme Manager Maggie Murphy took first-hand note of the Batwa’s marginalization through their harrowing living conditions. UNPO advocacy on behalf of unrepresented peoples like the Batwa, is based on research investigations, collaboration with Members and field work and is lauded by other human rights organizations.  Organizations such as the STP and Minority Rights Group International have cited UNPO’s work with the Batwa in international forums.  In March 2011, UNPO also presented in front of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) the disparities in well-being between the Batwa and other Rwandan citizens (article). 

Click here for full UNPO statement

Click here to watch video of the session