Interview with Gay McDougall: Minority Rights Advocate

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As a lawyer and minority rights advocate, Gay McDougall’s career has spanned four decades and reached every continent. She has been dedicated to furthering the breadth of marginalized voices through a number of posts with the United Nations, and in partnership with international organizations, and was recently appointed chair of Minority Rights Group, an organization which supports minority rights through education, litigation, and advocating for sustainable development policies. Utne Reader recently had a chance to catch up with McDougall and discuss her accomplished and ongoing career: 

You grew up during in the U.S. with segregation and then you went to college through integration so I wanted to know how this has informed your career?

It’s been the core motivation of my career and it’s also been the thought of a lot of my intuitive knowledge about how discrimination works, the many forms it takes, and how it impacts both individuals and communities.

That led you into your career as a lawyer and being involved with many organizations. Can you go through some of the highlights of your work in different countries and with different institutions?

I would name as one of the highlights of my career of working on racial discrimination issues in the United States including being in one of the early crews of people who registered black voters throughout the south after the Voting Rights Act in the early 60’s. That was a little bit before my career got started because I was a college student.

I would say that my involvement in the liberation struggles in southern Africa, and most particularly in Namibia and South Africa—my years of getting to know and work with Nelson Mandela and certainly standing next to him when he voted for the first time in his life.

I would say that one of my career highs or maybe you’d say lows, is being in Rwanda not long after the genocide there. And then going on to work in countries around the world—Cambodia, India, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Haiti, Australia with the indigenous communities there. And a true highlight was my opportunity to serve as the first Independent Expert on Minorities.

And what did that entail?

My job was to try first of all to promote the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Minorities—ethnic, religious, linguistic minorities in countries around the world and throughout communities. I also had the task of going to countries and interacting with governments at the very highest level and then assessing how those countries were or were not meeting their international obligations under treaties that mandated non-discrimination under the Declaration on Minorities. So in that capacity I traveled to every continent and in some cases because minority communities generally live in sort of isolated, distant places, it also meant traveling to those isolated distant places to meet with members of affected communities. And that was truly a highlight and I don’t think that even with all my years of working with NGOs and affected groups around the world, was I able to both interact with governments at that high level and to also get to interact with communities in such a fashion and on their turf. And always with the special enabling of powers of the U.N., which is interpreters, so I could actually talk to people even those that spoke local languages, so that I could be in their environment, communicate with them through their own local languages and really get a feel, my own feel, for what the situation is for minorities around the world.

I won’t forget going to this very distant, dusty, isolated village, Gambela, in Ethiopia right on the border with South Sudan—someplace that most of the members of the government of Ethiopia never went to. And being able to be out there, to talk to people about an incident that had happened there that had genocide overtones. And I called as I usually do a meeting of women of the area and so one night in one thatched roof meeting place, the women came to meet with me. Elderly women, young women, children with them in tow, and they had been through a very, very difficult time. Their men had been either killed or chased off. They were without financial support and they were also in great physical jeopardy. And they said to me no one has ever asked us what happened. And that being, not only because of where they are, but because they were women. To me those, were very special moments.

You’ve had all these different experiences and worked with a wide variety of organizations. In your experience what’s been the most sustainable and effective method for advocating and working towards minority rights—has it been a more top-down or bottom-up perspective?

It’s actually been both. There is no substitute for helping people gain their own sense of empowerment, and their own sense that they can have the tools to deal with their problems themselves. But there’s also no substitute for seeing that national laws respect their rights. So that’s the lever that local communities have to ultimately pull. But it’s got to be there.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing minorities today?

It’s very hard to say what the most pressing issue is. I tend to think that poverty and economic exclusion are really critical pieces. Everywhere I was able to travel to take a look at minorities and sometimes indigenous people, though that was not quite in my mandate at the U.N., there was no doubt about it that the first thing that they suffered from was poverty. Economic exclusion was really a major tool used to marginalize them.

You mentioned you were in Rwanda after the genocide. In extreme cases like that, how should communities or even international institutions address past violations against various groups?

In general, of course we all in favor of prosecuting the bad guys, the perpetrators have to be held to account. Various countries have found various ways to do it. In 2011, I went to Rwanda which was the first time I had been there since right after the genocide. So I saw the country at these two ends of the spectrum. Rwanda has taken a approach to accountability. They’ve had these village quasi-judicial tribunals. They’ve had some regular prosecution and the ad hoc tribunal. I am persuaded that while one holds out accountability as the gold standard, that communities have to be allowed to find their own way of reaching that standard. I don’t know that there’s any place where that gold standard has been reached.

What else, in addition to Minority Rights Group, are you working on or partnering with?

I’ve been on the board of the Global Fund for Women for nine years which funds grassroots advocacy among women around the world. I’m now on the Global Advisory Panel for the executive director of U.N. Women. I’ve also been following and trying to do some writing, maybe some lobbying on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. Trying to make sure that minorities are fully considered in the development of the agenda and will reap equally in the outcome of development processes.

How do you see, in terms of development and minority rights, climate change factor in?

Climate change is one of the central issues that is trying to be tackled in this Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. I think that there’s no question that climate change is going to have, or is having, a disproportionate impact on minorities and indigenous populations. From ones that live off the land, the changes that occur, think of the nomadic populations in desert areas. But also in terms of displacement both directly because of climate change, but also by governments. As governments try to deal with moving population groups off of the coastal areas, the minority groups tend to have a tenuous title to their land. And also tend to be sitting on some very valuable land. So there will be a greater contest for those pieces of land as climate change bears down more deeply. 

Minority Rights Group just released their annual State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples report. This year’s publication focuses on hate crimes and hate speech and can be read here.

Photo courtesyMinority Rights Group.

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