A week to speak up on Discrimination based on Work and Descent: leaving no one behind

24 janvier 2023

In September 2019, Heads of State and Government gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to follow up and comprehensively review progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This marked the first UN summit on the SDGs since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in September 2015.

The mantra “leave no one behind” has been embraced by the development community and embedded in global development efforts. The importance of tackling inequalities and fighting for the inclusion and participation of marginalized people is therefore obvious. However, it must be recognized that numerous voices are still not heard in the global development processes. A particularly loud one is that of people facing discrimination based on work and descent.

Discrimination based on work and descent (DWD) is estimated to affect over 260 million people worldwide, in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and North America. This form of discrimination which is prohibited under international human rights law is referred to by the UN as structural and hierarchical systemic discrimination. Descent based discrimination fundamentally undermines the dignity of the persons concerned; it fuels violations of the right to education and employment, undermines access to justice and all too often, catalyses sexual violence and other crimes targeted at women and girls[1]. Although reports such as that of the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues[2], presented during the Human Rights Council’s 31st Session in March 2016, limits its understanding of DWD to Caste and other analogous forms of discrimination, there are communities that have not necessarily been identified under the DWD framework that fit in the definition.

This type of discrimination also affects communities which are forced into intergenerational slavery because of their social standing in the society as it is the case in countries such as Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Similarly, some communities from other regions like Europe and South America face the same challenges. This is the case for the Roma community[3] often known as Gypsies who face segregation based on their ethnicity. They are bracketed to do specific kind of jobs and experience high level of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment due to discrimination in access to education, housing, health facilities and employment. In South America, Quilombolas and traditional communities are discriminated in terms of income, access to land and employment. Across the board, these communities are historically excluded on social, economic and political spheres and relegated to the bottom of their societies. They are prohibited from significant social engagement and not involved in decision-making.

DWD is clearly a global phenomenon which should be addressed as a matter of urgency. The plight of DWD communities should be given greater visibility at the global level; bringing the voices from the grassroots to inform the advocacy efforts before international bodies such as the UN and intergovernmental institutions to address and advance the question of DWD. Deliberate efforts must be made towards putting up a unified voice in laying claim to reparative and restorative justice for these communities.     

In view of this context, various stakeholders[4] came together from 21 to 23 September to hold the International Congress on Discrimination based on Work and Descent, Casteism, Antigypsyism and Traditional and Contemporary forms of Slavery (ICDWD). The ICDWD represented a historic platform providing opportunities to frame strategies and define collective ways to address DWD so as to strengthen a global network of DWD communities by providing adequate space for interaction and mutual sharing of experiences, challenges and hope.

The ICDWD brought together 114 participants, including parliamentarians, human rights activists, academicians, development researchers, and media practioners together from 21 countries worldwide. For three days they had the opportunity to reflect on the convergences and divergences in the manifestation and effects of this discrimination across the various context regionally.  They also brainstormed on the various strategies needed for the inclusion of DWD communities in SDGs and other international processes at the national, regional and international level.

Earlier on, during a round table discussion, nine Parliamentarians from Somalia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal reiterated their commitment to bring forward the cause of DWD communities in their constituencies and beyond. The round-table discussion took place on 20 September at the Permanent Mission of Senegal to the United Nations and the Senegal Ambassador to the UN expressed his government’s support for the cause and commitment to be a voice in the UN in favour of the meaningful inclusion and participation of DWD communities in development processes.

Throughout that week, participants at the ICDWD were also actively engaged in a parallel event, The People’s Assembly, organized by Global Call for Action against Poverty (GCAP) and other partners.  The People’s Assembly brings together people’s representatives and civil society from around the world to give grassroots and marginalized people a voice. Most importantly, it is a space for all to jointly analyze the structural reasons for the injustices, act and plan for common future actions to create systemic change to achieve the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement[5]. During the People’s Assembly, a side event on DWD was organized with the primary aim of sharing information on the context and express the gravity of the discrimination faced by DWD communities in different countries. There was representation from the Roma, Quilombola, Haratine, Dalit and Somali Bantu communities. It was also an opportunity to increase networking and generate support from other CSOs stakeholders on the issue of DWD to make it more visible at all levels.

GCAP included DWD as an issue of vital importance to address in the collective fight against inequalities around the world and has shared the concern within the People’s Assembly Alternative declaration[6] made public on 25 September.

Following discussions in panels and group works, various innovative ideas were brought to the table. In the deliberation, it was decided that there is an urgent need for the creation of a Global Forum on DWD to address the key issues of recognition, representation, inclusion, and participation of DWD communities. Prof Penda Mbow, Advisor to the President of the Republic of Senegal  who presided over the ICDWD was designated Advisor to the Global Forum while Paul Divakar, of The Inclusivity Project and Asia Dalit Rights Forum was designated as the Convener. This forum has taken the mantle to address the issues of DWD within SDGs processes and human rights mechanisms for inclusive participation of the communities by engaging relevant agencies to ensure they effectively enjoy their rights. Amongst other things, the Global Forum will be working towards ensuring that the Human Rights Council and UN member states promote and endorse the UN Draft Principles and Guidelines for the Effective Elimination of Discrimination Based on Work and Descent (UN P&G) published by the HRC in 2009 (A/HRC/11/CRP.3).

An Executive Committee of the Global Forum on Discrimination Based on Work and Descent has also been set up. It is composed of the 7 main organizations[7] that convened the ICDWD. The Executive Committee is to decide on the upcoming actions and collaboration within the Global Forum.

On the same path, Parliamentarian representatives from 9 countries formed the International Parliamentarians Forum on DWD with Hon. Meen Biswakarma (Parliamentarian from Nepal) as the Convener and Hon. Mohammad Nur Iftin (Somalian Parliamentarian) as Co-convener. This International Parliamentarians Forum focuses on the engagement and interventions of Parliamentarians on DWD issues, nationally and internationally including before the UN.

At the end of the ICDWD activities, the delegates unanimously agreed and adopted the declaration named “Global Call to Eradicate Discrimination and Uphold Human Dignity and Equality”. The New York Declaration[8] was publicized and disseminated to the UN and member states. This is to be used in the fight against discrimination based on work and descent at the global level.

Clearly, the motion is set. The question to be answered is who else will jump on the band-wagon of the fight against DWD? Discrimination based on work and descent is ‘one of the main barriers of development’[9] and as such it is crucial to ensure equality and inclusion of DWD communities globally, ensure awareness of all parties and secure commitment from the relevant agencies. As rightly stated by Kumi Naidoo, Secretary-General of Amnesty International, during the inaugural session of the ICDWD “It is about time to put the people discriminated on the basis of work and descent at the center of the agenda.”

[1] OHCHR’s guidance tool on Descent based Discrimination on Key challenges and Strategies to combat caste-based and analogous forms of discrimination (2017).

[2]Report available via the link: https://idsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Special-Rapporteur-on-minority-issues-report-on-caste.pdf

[3] The Roma Community is one of the largest ethnic community in Europe with over 12 million people living on the continent.

[4] The ICDWD was organized by The Asia Dalit Rights Forum, The African Network on Discrimination based on work and descend and contemporary forms of slavery; Ergo Network, TrustAfrica; The Inclusivity Project and Boston Study Group.

[5] https://gcap.global/peoples-assembly/

[6] The declaration is available via this link: https://gcap.global/news/peoples-assembly-declaration/

[7] The Asia Dalit Rights Forum, The African Network on Discrimination based on work and Descent and Contemporary forms of Slavery, Ergo Network, TrustAfrica, The Inclusivity project, Ambedkar International Mission and Boston Study Group.

[8] https://trustafrica.org/images/New-York-Declaration.pdf

[9] Senegalese Ambassador, His Excellency Cheikh Niang during the Parliamentarians Roundtable on Discrimination based on Work and Descent hosted by the Permanent Mission of Republic of Senegal to the United Nations on 20 September 2019.

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