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Dalits Break Through UN Wall of Silence on Caste

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International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) – Working globally against discrimination based on work and descent

The UN Commission on Human Rights today adopted by consensus a decision to appoint two Special Rapporteurs to tackle the entrenched problem of caste-based discrimination. The Commission was endorsing an earlier decision taken by its Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the problem and find solutions for its eradication. This is the first time a political body of the UN has referred directly to the problem, and the decision is seen as a crucial step in the campaign for justice for South Asia’s Dalits (formerly known as ‘untouchables’) and communities suffering from similar forms of discrimination around the world.

In India, the Dalit community numbers around 170 million, but related forms of discrimination are practised in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Japan, Senegal and Bangladesh. It is estimated that 260 million people globally are deprived of their basic rights by this form of discrimination, referred to in UN circles as ‘discrimination based on work and descent’.

‘Given the enormous number of people facing such an egregious and systematic denial of their basic rights, it is surprising that the United Nations has taken so long to recognise the problem’, said Ms. Rikke Nöhrlind, co-ordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN).

Mr. Vincent Manoharan of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights in India welcomed the decision: ‘Dalits claim this as a belated victory in the struggle for international recognition of our plight and welcome the stance of the new Indian government, which did not stand in the way of the passing of this resolution.’

Dalit women suffer from double discrimination on the basis of caste and gender. Ms. Ruth Manorama of the National Federation of Dalit Women said, ‘This decision will go a long way towards meeting at the crossroads the victims of caste discrimination, in particular untouchable women who experience savage attacks on a day to day basis, abject poverty and criminal neglect of the Constitutional directives.’

On behalf of the European Union, Ambassador Alphonse Berns of Luxembourg had earlier encouraged all members of the Commission on Human Rights ‘to give the [Sub-Commission’s] resolution the attention it deserves.’ The EU has been supportive of efforts to raise this issue in the UN bodies.

The Sub-Commission will now undertake a 3-year study, led by two experts given the title of ‘Special Rapporteurs’, and will draft a set of Principles and Guidelines to eliminate this form of discrimination.

The decision of the Commission comes in the wake of an International Consultation held in Kathmandu last year on how to address the problem. The Consultation adopted the Kathmandu Dalit Declaration, which provides concrete proposals for not only governments, the UN and development agencies, but also the private sector, trade unions and international financial institutions. One of the proposals has now been fulfilled in the form of the appointment of the Special Rapporteurs. The relevant UN documents and the Kathmandu Dalit Declaration are available at www.idsn.org

Notes for editors

  • Caste discrimination is a rigid form of social stratification based on birth or descent. Caste systems create hierarchies of social prestige, of labour, of access to power and of wealth. Quite simply the hazard of which family one is born into in a caste system pre-determines ones quality of life. Prevention of inter-marriage between castes is one of the most strictly enforced rules of the caste system, ensuring that the system is self-perpetuating. Those at the bottom of caste systems are considered untouchable, and should live, work, study and eat separately from higher caste people.
  • Caste and related forms of discrimination dehumanise people in both overt and sinister ways. Dalits and other low caste communities are considered to be born as ‘polluted’ and ‘polluting’ to their neighbours, and stay this way until they die. They are discriminated against in every sphere of life. Their family of origin determines not only their social status, but also impedes their choice of occupation, their living conditions, their ability to participate in social practices and their freedom to marry. Dalits and other low-caste groups are at the bottom of every social indicator and can generally expect to be poorer, to be more illiterate, to have worse jobs, to be victims of violence and to die younger than other groups in their societies.
  • Many countries have established laws and statutory bodies designed to end such practices, with India’s Constitutional and other provisions leading the way. However, the caste system has proven more resilient than these measures, as the political will to implement the reforms is grossly insufficient. As a result, when Dalits suffer violence, forced labour, segregation and humiliation, their higher caste oppressors simply escape justice. Often Dalits themselves are arrested when they attempt to have the laws protecting them implemented. The lynching of 5 Dalits outside a police post in Haryana, India in 2002 and the ensuing impunity of the perpetrators offers one example of the meaninglessness of laws which are ignored at the local level. Dalits believe that both the measures adopted and their implementation on the ground should be brought under the international spotlight.
  • The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and the International Dalit Solidarity Network have been working for a number of years to ensure that caste discrimination is recognised at the international level. The organisations see this step as a breakthrough at the political level in the UN, following great pressure created by Commission’s special mechanisms and the UN treaty bodies.
  • IDSN is a network of national solidarity networks, national advocacy groups from affected countries and international organisations* concerned about caste discrimination and similar forms of discrimination based on work and descent. IDSN brings together organisations, institutions and individuals and links grassroots priorities with international mechanisms and institutions to make an effective contribution to the elimination of caste discrimination.
  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is an Associate Member of IDSN. MRG congratulates IDSN and all organizations and individuals working to bring national and international attention to the issues of discrimination based on work and descent, as well as supporting states, for their hard work in bringing this resolution into effect.

* Human Rights Watch, the Lutheran World Federation, the International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, Anti-Slavery International, Minority Rights Group International (MRG), Asian Human Rights Commission, the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, FORUM-ASIA, the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation and the World Council of Churches.

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