Saturday, April 17, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Caste discrimination against India's 'untouchables' is an international issue

Caste discrimination against India's 'untouchables' is an international issue
The caste system may be outlawed in India, but legislation is poorly
implemented, and the country's 200 million Dalits continue to suffer
appalling forms of discrimination, writes Rikke Nohrlind.

By Rikke Nohrlind
Published: 10:49AM BST 16 Apr 2010

For years, the Government of India has opposed efforts to place the
issue of caste discrimination on the agenda of the international
community. This attitude is counterproductive as it would be to
India's advantage to support such efforts and take the lead in the
global struggle against a form of discrimination which affects an
estimated 260 million people around the world.

The caste system may be outlawed in India, but legislation is poorly
implemented, and the country's 200 million Dalits – formerly known as
'untouchables' – continue to suffer appalling forms of discrimination.
Murder, rape and other crimes against them are mostly committed with
impunity, while many Dalits experience forced prostitution and other
forms of modern slavery.

Indian leader faces jail after call for rival to be 'raped'India has
much to gain from encouraging international involvement in this issue.
Its endorsement of a UN framework to eliminate caste discrimination
would set an example to other countries and strengthen its own
unsuccessful efforts to end this human rights problem. Such a
framework exists in the form of the draft UN Principles and Guidelines
to eliminate caste discrimination, which have been published, but not
yet adopted, by the UN Human Rights Council.

Recently, civil society activists and an Indian MP have urged the
government to stop opposing the inclusion of caste discrimination in
the international human rights regime, and to become a champion of the
draft UN Principles and Guidelines in the UN. However, government
officials continue to reject such claims based on misguided
interpretations of caste discrimination in the context of
international human rights law.

Some officials claim that caste is not part of the existing
international human rights regime and oppose the adoption of a new and
specific framework to address this form of discrimination in the UN.
IDSN believes that caste discrimination warrants separate and
distinctive treatment in the UN human rights system because of its
unique nature, the vast numbers of people affected and the severity of
the associated violations.

Since 1996 the Government of India has also argued that caste falls
outside the scope of the International Convention for the Elimination
of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). However, the draft UN Principles and
Guidelines make completely clear that caste discrimination is
prohibited by international human rights treaties, to which India is a
party, including ICERD.

Such misconceptions now permeate the media debate on the draft UN
Principles and Guidelines. These guidelines do not equate caste with
race; they provide a specific definition of discrimination based on
work and descent (the official UN terminology for caste
discrimination) as "any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or
preference based on inherited status such as caste, including present
or ancestral occupation, family, community or social origin, name,
birth place, place of residence, dialect and accent."

A recent and unprecedented move towards making caste discrimination a
criminal offence in the UK through an amendment to the Equality Bill
may provide additional impetus to the adoption of the guidelines.
Mounting evidence of caste discrimination in South Asian Diaspora
communities in the UK has prompted this initiative.

The international community is increasingly concerned with India's
opposition to the consideration of caste discrimination as an
international human rights violation that warrants attention by UN
bodies. This position is in deep contrast to India's own binding
treaty obligations. It is based on the underlying assumption that
caste is an internal affair and not a matter of international concern.

Allowing caste discrimination to persist is shameful. We believe that
affected governments in South Asia ought to take the lead in
eliminating one of the largest and most serious human rights issue in
the world today. India's support for a UN framework would improve the
country's unimpressive human rights record and give hope to millions
of victims of caste discrimination – not only in India itself, but
around the world.

Rikke Nohrlind is the Coordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network

The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) works globally to
end caste discrimination. Read more about this issue on


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