Malta must adopt a rights-based approach to national anti-racism plans

This is the Introduction to our submissions presented to the Parliamentary Secretariat for Equality and Reform for its consultation on the adoption of a national anti-racism action plan. Essentially, we are urging Government to place human dignity at the heart of its national framework by adopting a rights-based approach to national anti-racism plans.

The full document may be downloaded here.

aditus foundation enthusiastically welcomes Malta’s commitment towards establishing a national action plan to combat racism and xenophobia. This step has the potential of dramatically improving the well-being of thousands of persons living in Malta, whilst simultaneously confirming that Malta is truly committed to upholding the inherent dignity and equality of all persons.

It has always been a key concern of aditus foundation that a country becoming increasingly diverse has failed to muster the courage to engage with this sensitive theme. There is no excuse for the inaction of successive Governments. Year after year, hate speech against racial minorities has grown in volumes and intensity, with social media platforms now entirely dedicated to promoting – directly or indirectly – racial superiority, Nazism, fascism and the suppression of minority groups. The incidence of racially-motivated hate crimes is also of serious concern, the 2019 brutal murder of Lassana Cisse a stark wake-up call for the entire nation. Whilst these incidents have generally targeted the African migrant population, several other communities suffer discrimination on the basis of their membership – or attributed membership – to an ethnic or racial minority, including Maltese nationals.

Together with the above, it is our view that racism is not limited to a group of people active in dark corners of the web. On the contrary, whilst the promulgation of far-right groups is by no means surprising in a polarised and troubled global context, we are concerned that popular expressions of racism and the nonchalance with which these are externalised are symptoms of a nation that has been through a learning process of dehumanisation vis-á-vis non-Maltese persons living in Malta. The impact of the constant negative political discourse on migration, with intentional use of derogatory, inflammatory and offensive language, may not be underestimated and must be taken into account in any honest anti-racism action plan.

“He is a guest in our country and is receiving our help, you cannot attack and beat up people who are helping you.”[1]

Yet the action plan’s major challenge will undoubtedly be efforts at reconciling its goals with laws, policies and practices that are themselves racist in the way they (ill-)treat non-Maltese persons in Malta. Research worldwide has shown the direct link between immigration detention policies and the stigmatisation of migrants, and findings from our own research confirm that Malta’s choices in relation to migrants and the justice system (arrest, bringing to court, judicial process, etc.) have a clear impact on their enjoyment of fair trial rights.

“I don’t know what you do in your country, but here we dress properly in Court.”

We have repeatedly flagged our concern that leaving migrants at sea for days indicates a clear hierarchical approach to human life, one entirely contrary to the core principles of anti-racism and equality.

“Quoting from Pope Francis, the Magistrate highlighted the importance of Christians and Muslims working together to achieve peace and justice. The accused’s attitude, he said, was not striving to achieve this goal and such actions caused unnecessary tensions in society and cast a dark shadow over the Muslim community.”

Our work with various migrant communities, including non-black communities, talks about a learned fear of those entities mandated to protect them: police, correctional services, armed forced, judiciary. Racist online comments, dismissive or degrading treatment, verbal and physical violence at the hand of such forces are some of the experiences our beneficiaries bring to our office in the hope to secure justice or comfort.

Submissions coverpage

A glance at Malta’s quasi-judicial tribunals reveals a stark lack of human, financial and capacity investment in those entities processing claims brought by migrants and asylum-seekers, resulting in a racist approach to justice and the right to an effective remedy. Additionally, as the quotes in this Section indicate, Malta’s justice system is often unfriendly to migrants and refugees: sentencing practices, dismissive or disparaging statements, lack of interpreters, questionable legal aid service are but some examples of observed issues.

“A process should be kickstarted whereby people who are a threat to the security of our country and our citizens should have their residence permits revoked and be deported back to their own countries.”

Under these circumstances, a national action plan to combat racism is sorely needed and will face challenges of mammoth proportions. aditus foundation is committed to supporting this timely initiative in a spirit of dialogue and trust, wherein we will advocate for the highest possible levels of protection and human rights enjoyment. We are looking forward to engaging with the Parliamentary Secretariat for Equality and Reforms to see the action plan realised, implemented and monitored. Essentially, we hope that Malta moves towards adopting a clear and unequivocal stand against populism, intolerance and racial hatred.

“The court will rule with an iron fist with these few, and encourage the authorities to use the power granted by law to take drastic steps, including their removal from the country.”

Note on these Submissions

Together with our input, these submissions are, in their substance, based on recommendations provided by international and regional human rights bodies, for various reasons.

Firstly, it is imperative that the national action plan to combat racism adopts a rights-based approach. Adopting a rights-based approach to anti-racism means placing the dignity of the person at the heart of the framework, within the tripartite State duties to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all persons within Malta’s jurisdiction. In practice, this means ensuring compliance of the action plan with Malta’s international/regional human rights obligations as contained in various treaties and conventions.

The Legal Brief accompanying the Consultation Document is an excellent starting point yet it fails to appreciate the intersectional dimension of anti-racism as well as the broader legal and policy context that fuels racism. For example, important elements from the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and from the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are missing. In this regard, we underline the importance of going beyond the text of the Conventions and including the pronouncements and statements of the relevant Treaty-Bodies.

Secondly, the national action plan need not operate within a legal and policy vacuum. The framework and recommendations provided by the international/regional human rights systems, particularly those provided within the Universal Periodic Review process, provide measurable targets against which Malta is regularly monitored, assessed and ranked. We underline that it would be in Malta’s interests to establish a national action plan that not only meets substantive targets on anti-racism but that also elevates Malta’s rankings in these significant human rights procedures.

This document readily presents the key recommendations made to Malta by international/regional human rights bodies in the past five years. We emphasised those elements we feel are most pertinent to the national context.

[1] The quotes reproduced in this section are taken directly from judgements delivered by the Maltese Courts in relation to migrants or refugees. All references are available.