LUTHERISCHER WELTBUND - FEDERACIÓN LUTERANA MUNDIAL - FÉDÉRATION LUTHÉRIENNE MONDIALE
General Secretariat - Office for International Affairs and Human Rights
COMMITTEE ON THE ELIMINATION OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
Geneva, 5-23 August 2002 Thematic discussion on discrimination on the ground of descent, 8 August 2002
Discrimination based on caste and similar forms of social hierarchy
The co-sponsors of this statement warmly welcome the opportunity provided by this thematic discussion to examine the meaning and practical application of the descent limb of the definition of 'racial discrimination' in article 1(1) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The particular issue that we believe should be at the centre of this discussion, and of any General Recommendation that follows it, is that of discrimination based on caste and similar forms of social hierarchy.
Taken by itself, the term 'descent' could be construed so as to cover the entire gamut of concerns that are addressed under the Convention. But the discussion should, in our submission, focus on the specific function or added value of the term 'descent' in the definition of 'racial discrimination'. It should be aimed at illuminating what it is that the inclusion of the term 'descent' adds that is not covered by the other qualifiers in the definition - race, colour, and national or ethnic origin.
The issue of discrimination based on caste and on similar forms of social hierarchy is an issue that the Committee has repeatedly addressed in explicit reliance on the descent limb. It is on this basis that the Committee has already addressed the situation of Dalits in India1, Nepal2 and Bangladesh3, and the similar form of discrimination suffered by Burakumin in Japan4. The Committee has also referred, at least in passing, to the issue of caste in its review of the situations in Burkina Faso5, Burundi6, Mauritania7 and Mauritius8. And in addition to these countries, other treaty bodies have referred to the issue of caste also in Sri Lanka9, Cameroon10 and Mali11. Whilst caste, caste discrimination, and similar forms of discrimination are by no means limited to these countries, this list already demonstrates the global dimensions of the issue.
Caste discrimination (and similar forms of discrimination) does not lend itself to treatment under the other qualifiers in the definition, but is clearly a form of discrimination based on descent. And if the term 'descent' were not included in the definition of 'racial discrimination', then the well-documented systemic forms of discrimination suffered by, for example, the Dalits of South Asia might well find no firm basis for attention under the Convention.
The travaux preparatoires of the Convention reveal that it was the Government of India that introduced the term 'descent' into the discussions on the definition contained in article 1(1).12 In the discussions on the 'special measures' provision (now article 1(5) of the Convention), it was also India that made explicit reference to the need to include under the protection of this provision any special measures for the advancement of the 'Scheduled Castes'.13 The necessary implication is that, in the view of the Government of India, such special measures would otherwise potentially have contravened the prohibition against racial discrimination. And, if discrimination in favour of 'Scheduled Castes' would contravene the provisions of the Convention, then so would discrimination against them.
It should be noted that the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, during these very days, is also taking up discussion of the issue of caste-based discrimination and similar forms of discrimination, under the rubric of 'discrimination based on work and descent'. A preliminary working paper on this topic was presented by Mr. R.K.W. Goonesekere during the Sub-Commission's 53rd session last year, in which he declared that:
The discussion on this topic will be resumed during the current session of the Sub-Commission.
The populations of concern, and to whose situations we wish to draw your attention in this thematic discussion, include an estimated 250 million Dalits in South Asia, an estimated 3 million Burakumin in Japan, an unknown number of 'caste people' in parts of Africa, and the Paekjong of Korea.
It is striking that these different communities, highly diverse in geographical and historical origin, share to a greater or lesser extent several key characteristics that are inherently productive of discrimination and human rights violations. Key among these are:
Today's thematic discussion gives the Committee an excellent opportunity to hear from victims of the inherently discriminatory effects of caste systems and similar social hierarchies, and to compare and contrast their experiences of systemic marginalization. Some governments have recognized the problem and have taken measures to address it. Others have yet even to acknowledge it. It remains, however, a blight upon the lives and hopes of millions of people around the world.
Treaty bodies such as this Committee are entrusted, inter alia, with the responsibility of interpreting and applying the treaties they oversee. This Committee has shown its commitment to applying the 'descent' limb of the definition of 'racial discrimination' to caste discrimination and similar practices. However, this interpretation and application, repeatedly affirmed by the Committee, continues to be rejected by some states. The international law of human rights exists to regulate and monitor the actions of states, to ensure minimum standards are applied and that all people and peoples benefit from its protection. Under human rights law, no one should be an 'outcast'.
We hope that the Committee will treat this issue with the seriousness that it deserves, and demonstrate to the victims of this form of discrimination (some of whom are present in this very room) that the international community requires nothing less than the full and effective implementation of treaty obligations to the elimination of all forms of discrimination, including discrimination on the ground of descent. To this end, we call upon the Committee to produce a general recommendation which will guide and encourage states parties to take all necessary legal, administrative, and public educational measures to effectively consign discrimination based upon caste and similar social hierarchies to the pages of history.