Towards Inclusive Societies: Recognition, Addressing, and Overcoming Discrimination

On the International Day of Zero Discrimination, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) held an online panel discussion addressing the occasion. The panelists discussed discrimination in terms of recognition, challenges, and possible solutions, highlighting the Mandela example in this regard. The panel discussion was moderated by Asma Darwish, the Advocacy Officer at BCHR.

Masana Ndinga-Kanga, Crisis Response Fund Lead at CIVICUS, opened the discussion by correlating discrimination with power, whereby “discrimination is exerting power over another person for traits that sometimes they have no control over,” and it used “as a means to control and suppress.” She highlighted the fact that a lot of today’s intersectional analysis in civil society on combating discrimination use “a tick-box approach” to recognize discrimination, which can be insufficient and should be replaced by applying deep listening. Deep listening means “being open to being confronted by the discomfort that others are experiencing as a result of our actions.” 

Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor at Human Rights First, gave a concise definition of discrimination as “unfair treatment of somebody or a group of people for who they are.” He also indicated a correlation between discrimination and power; “the more power you have, the less likely you see discrimination.” Brian discussed obvious and subtle forms of discrimination and referred to the subtle forms as being more powerful. He also discussed Mandela’s legacy not only by referring to the consensual view about Mandela being good, patient, and understanding but also highlighting a few controversial aspects of his positions and actions. Brian pressed Mandela’s massive achievements and leadership.

Nedal al-Salman, President of BCHR and IFEX, and Vice President of FIDH, talked about the concept of indirect-discrimination, like the one that is taking place in Bahrain. She cited denial of discrimination as a problem that impedes solutions. Nedal focused on education as a “tool for change,” referring to Mandela as an inspiration for this approach. She pressed the idea that acceptance can be educated and that accepting our differences is the first step to tackle discrimination. 

Jostein Kobbeltvedt, Executive Director of RAFTO Foundation for Human Rights, described today’s struggles as mainly about or against discrimination pointing to Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. The struggle is between those who try to address inherent differences in power and privileges and those who fear losing their privileges. This struggle is also present in the current pandemic, which makes some of the discriminations more evident. Jostein referred to the management of change as the most important lesson to be learned from Mandela, as he was able to mobilize those who were fighting for power and at the same time communicate with those who feared losing their privileges.

In order to successfully combat discrimination, Brian suggested following Mandela’s footsteps in convincing people that the equation is not a zero-sum game and that discrimination hurts not just the victim of discrimination but the person who is doing it too.  He emphasized that the current pandemic perfectly explains this idea, where distributing the vaccines to poor countries would be in the interest of rich countries so that the virus does not mutate and come back to them.

Masana pointed that the impetus behind a lot of discrimination that we see happening across the world is economic. She explained how discrimination works by referring to people’s goal on Earth, which is basically to accumulate, expand power, dominate, and colonize. “Discrimination is violent for the dehumanization and creation of hierarchies in society that undermine everything else but self-interest.” Masana stressed that discrimination is usually reinforced by its victims in order to survive; “the economic impetus in our neoliberal system cannot take place without the exploitation of others.” 

Jostein reiterated the notion that privilege makes it harder to spot discrimination and emphasized Masana’s view on “deep listening” to try to understand. He pointed to the challenge of “not getting people on the defensive” when addressing discrimination as human rights movements and the difficulty to deal with the resentment and counter-attacks that happen because there are new people who want a share of the “privileges.” The real challenge is how to create a conversation with the people who think that they are losing out on their influence.

With regard to addressing discrimination, Nedal encouraged human rights groups to submit shadow reports and complaints to international human rights bodies. She highlighted the severe consequences of discrimination on individuals and society alike. Nedal reaffirmed the importance of education as a tool to eradicate all forms of discrimination. She also talked about the shortcomings in the work of Bahraini human rights organizations in this regard due to the closed space for civil society. Brian commented on the discrimination within civil society and the need to address it. 

Masana again highlighted economics as an impetus for discrimination, reflecting on a study of which she was part with the UNDP on social contracting. The study found that we cannot have reconciliation and acceptance built on a high level of inequality. “It is absolutely impossible to foster acceptance and unity without addressing the access to just livelihoods.” Under unequal economic relationships, less fortunate people are accepted on the terms of those who are in power. Masana attributed the rise of the right-wing across the world to the depiction of those who are different as the enemy to justify exploitation within the economic system. “Addressing discrimination cannot take place if we shift our focus to where wealth is concentrated.” She added that “All types of discrimination are a distraction from those in power who benefit from this collective dehumanization.”

Brian drew one similarity between Apartheid South Africa and Bahrain, which is a minority group in charge at the expense of a majority group. He also highlighted that discrimination in Bahrain is multilayered, where, for example, domestic workers are discriminated against by both sects. Regarding discrimination, we cannot generalize the good on one side and the bad on the other. Brian pointed the importance to study the example of Mandela to try to illustrating the benefits of an end to discrimination. He concluded that “the inclusion and recognition of people on merit begin to dispel the notion that discrimination is inevitable.” 

Jostein reemphasized the importance of bringing up “economic exploitation” when addressing discrimination, especially that what we perceive as fair is universal. “Discrimination is about putting people into categories and giving different qualities to those categories, and the economic differences come to reinforce these categories.” He finally stressed that human rights defenders and organizations have the right to interfere in other countries based on universal values and “the right to care.” “Maintaining universality of certain principles and being able to support each other is something we should fight for.” 

Nedal concluded by noting all forms of discrimination that exist in Bahrain, whether on the basis of nationality, religion, disability, gender, sect, social status, etc. She pointed to the need for proper dialogue between different stakeholders to address this issue. Nedal suggested an annual “discrimination index” in cooperation with various civil society organizations. This index could be the first step in a serious effort to address discrimination

Masana concluded with a remark on the closed civic space in Bahrain and the feasibility of dialogue in light of the current situation. She wondered, “how do we have a dialogue with those who have power and who enact discrimination and are unwilling to change?” and “how do we ensure that those who have power are willing to talk among themselves about what needs to change?”

To watch the full online panel discussion, click here.