Published on: OneWorld South Asia, 17-5-2005      

UN rapporteurs to energise movement for Dalit rights

Rahul Kumar

The recent announcement by the UN Commission on Human Rights to appoint two special rapporteurs to tackle the deep-rooted problem of caste-based discrimination is a shot in the arm for activists fighting for the rights of the Dalits, the oppressed classes, in India. The two rapporteurs, who have been given the title of Special Rapporteurs, will undertake a three-year study and will draft a set of principles and guidelines to eliminate this form of discrimination.

National Convenor of the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) Ashok Bharti calls this a positive development and says: “This is for the first time that the world community has accepted caste discrimination in India as an issue. It clearly shows that UN feels that discrimination exists in south Asia and that it is an important issue to be taken up.”

It has been a long and torturous road for Dalit activists who have been reaching out to the international community, particularly the UN, since decades. The issue of discrimination was first taken up in the early eighties when Dr Lakshmi Narain Berwa gave a testimony before the UN on behalf of the Dalits – Knocking for Human Rights: Persecution of Untouchables is no Internal Problem of India.

The World Conference On Racism (WCOR) in South Africa in 2001, better known as the Durban Conference, put a global spotlight on casteism in India. Bharti says: “We argued that if apartheid could be taken up and accepted as an international issue why could casteism, which is similar to apartheid, not be taken up as one. After all both flourish on open and blatant discrimination and the Dalits in India are many times more in number.”

The Advocacy Secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) – which is a network of Indian Dalit organisations - Dr Umakant says: “The Vienna Declaration of 1993 declares that any violation of human rights in any part of the world is an international issue. It was then that we realized that such a discrimination exists not only in India but also in many other parts of the world, including Japan, Brazil and even African countries.”

NCDHR had raised the issue of caste-based discrimination at the Durban Conference and found that the Indian government had tried to brush aside casteism as an internal matter of India during the Durban conference. It also sought to underplay the existence of caste-based discrimination and tried to hide behind various constitutional provisions that uphold the rights of the oppressed people in India.

NACDOR’s Bharti says: “The negative attitude of the Indian government came upfront during the conference when the Nepal government accepted that they have a problem of discrimination at hand while the Indian government tried to deny that the problem existed.”
The Regional Humanitarian Values Coordinator of the International Red Cross, and the coordinator for the Reducing Discrimination Initiative Programme, Bijoy Basant Patro, says: “The UN system is in a better position to work with, advocate, plead with and persuade the governments across the world. This development takes place at a good time when there is a discernable change, for the better, in the Indian government's perception to this issue since the Durban meet.”

Activists also feel that this initiative of the UN will provide a true picture of the pitiable conditions of the Dalits in India and will also force the government to take concrete action on alleviating their misery.

NACDOR plans to utilize the opportunity to meet up with the special rapporteurs along with partner organisations. It is also preparing a status report on India’s Dalits and will hand it to the rapporteurs. Bharti says: “We are identifying issues, charters, planning presentations and preparing testimonies of people. We also plan to conduct public hearings of people against whom atrocities have been committed. Over the last 50 years, nearly five lakh atrocities have been committed in the name of caste in India.”

Patro says: “The appointment of the rapporteurs could not have come at a more opportune time because globalization and economic reforms have hit the poorest of the poor harder. These people are at a disadvantage, they lack of opportunities and they have been left behind even as other sections have benefited from these economic changes.”

“The rapporteurs need to take the time to evolve a common statement by all civil society and political stakeholders and evolve a strategy through a participatory process. This strategy should look at providing access to education, access to skills and equal access to employment. But these are also very politically loaded issues, which means that a level of neutrality and impartiality of the organisation would be particularly important and it is here that the UN’s role is important,” Patro adds.

With the expectations of Indian organisations and activists rather high, the two Special Rapporteurs - Prof. Yozo Yokota from Japan and Prof. Chin Sung Chung from South Korea – have quite a job cut out for them. The UN, which has become deeply involved in the issue now, has since the year 2000 undertaken at least three studies on discrimination, which it describes as work and descent-based discrimination.

Dr Umakant described the background to this far-reaching decision: “After studying these three papers, the UN decided to conduct a full fledged study in August 2004 and prepare a guideline to eliminate discrimination. The Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, which is headed by eminent Indian lawyer and former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, recommended the setting up of two special rapporteurs to the Commission on Human Rights.”

Dr Umakant says: “The Commission on Human Rights meets once in a year for six weeks and this year it met between March 14 – April 22 and decided to appoint the Special Rapporteurs. This recommendation was accepted unanimously by all the countries.”

He also emphasized upon the role of the Kathmandu summit in influencing the UN’s decision over casteism. An international consultation - Establishing Dalit Rights in the Contemporary World; the Role of Governments, the United Nations and the Private Sector – took place in Nepal last year in which activists and human rights organisations adopted the Kathmandu Dalit Declaration.

The declaration provided concrete proposals for the governments, the UN and development organizations and the private sector to eradicate discrimination and this also played its role in influencing the UN.




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