The global dimensions of discrimination based on 'caste and analogous systems of inherited status' addressed in historic UN decisions
Yesterday, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) adopted an historic document focusing on discrimination based on 'caste and analogous systems of inherited status'. The adoption of this document - called a General Recommendation - follows a thematic discussion convened by CERD on 8-9 August, in which the global dimensions of caste discrimination and similar forms of social hierarchy were confronted and challenged.
Members of the International Dalit Solidarity Network warmly welcomed this important new development in the international human rights arena.
Mr. Shigeyuki Kumisaka of the Buraku Liberation League declared that "this General Recommendation will serve to encourage and empower 3 million Burakumin in Japan, as well as 260 million people suffering from caste-based and similar forms of discrimination in India and other countries in South Asia and Africa - people who have long been forgotten, and on whose situation little light has ever been thrown".
It is not the first time that the controversial and politically-sensitive issue of discrimination against the Dalits (also known as 'Untouchables') of South Asia has been raised in UN forums. CERD itself has remarked upon this issue in the context of reviewing reports by, amongst others, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. And the issue was a key focus of the civil society advocacy in the context of the World Conference Against Racism in August/September 2001, though governments failed to acknowledge the concern in the official outcome of the World Conference. But caste-based and similar forms of discrimination in other countries is generally little discussed or understood, either at the international or national levels.
The CERD thematic discussion, and the General Recommendation which has emanated from it, have provided a framework for addressing the global dimensions of this human rights problem, which affects an estimated 260 million people worldwide. During the thematic discussion, CERD members heard testimony from 23 individuals, representing the situations of Dalits of South Asia, Burakumin of Japan, Osu of Nigeria, and casted communities in Senegal, Niger, Somalia and Kenya.
The General Recommendation addresses discrimination based on caste and other forms of inherited status in the areas of employment, education, housing and the administration of justice, as well as from the perspectives of women and children and in the use of the media.
In discussions which ran concurrently with the CERD thematic discussion, members of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights - the think-tank of the Commission on Human Rights - decided to extend their related study on discrimination based on work and descent. In a report presented last year by former Sub-Commission member Mr. R.K.W. Goonesekere of Sri Lanka addressed caste discrimination and similar phenomena in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, and Japan. Sub-Commission members Asbjörn Eide (of Norway) and Yozo Yokota (of Japan) have now been given the task of extending this study to relevant situations in other regions, especially Africa.
The discussions in both CERD and the Sub-Commission recognized the progress that especially India has already made in formulating legislation to prohibit and redress caste discrimination. However, as Mr. Soli Sorabjee, Attorney-General of India and member of the Sub-Commission remarked while addressing the CERD discussions, many of these measures suffer from "0% implementation".
Mr. Paul Divakar, Convenor of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) in India, agreed that "many constitutional provisions and laws have been promulgated, but there are still large areas unimplemented and yet to be enforced." According to Divakar, "the flood gates are now being flung open for addressing caste-based discrimination at the United Nations. This will pressurise the government in India to take the issue of enforcement more seriously." The latest developments in CERD and in the Sub-Commission will also provide a basis, in his view, for "networking with the many communities around the globe particularly in Asia and Africa which are discriminated against on the basis of caste or similar social hierarchies to collectively address this issue at the United Nations and in other forums".
The CERD General Recommendation and the ongoing Sub-Commission study are expected to be catalysts for a closer and more effective attention to the human rights violations associated with an ancient form of discrimination which remains a blight on the daily lives of millions of people around the world. With these decisions the 260 million Dalits of South Asia, as well as the unnumbered amount of those affected by caste discrimination in Africa and across the world, moved two steps closer to gaining their full rights.
Thomas Clarkson House, The Stableyard