Caste at the World Conference Against Racism

The issue of caste-based discrimination (and the similar forms of discrimination referred to by the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights as 'discrimination based on work and descent') was not addressed in the Declaration and Programme of Action adopted in Durban. Despite this lack of official recognition, the issue of discrimination based on caste and related forms of discrimination reached unprecedented levels of international prominence and media exposure during the WCAR and the preceding NGO Forum, due to the high degree of organization and visibility of the Dalit caucus.

The only, albeit implicit, reference to caste-based discrimination and related forms of discrimination in the draft documents used as the basis of negotiations in Durban was paragraph 73 of the Draft Programme of Action, which read as follows:

The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance:
Urges States to ensure that all necessary constitutional, legislative and administrative measures, including appropriate forms of affirmative action, are in place to prohibit and redress discrimination on the basis of work and descent, and that such measures are respected and implemented by all State authorities at all levels

This paragraph was supported and introduced into the draft text by the delegation of Switzerland.

Despite (a) the very circumspect language of this paragraph, (b) the fact that both the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights had already addressed this issue in several different national contexts, and (c) India's own constitutional commitment to the abolition of untouchability and the eradication of discrimination, the Indian government insisted on interpreting this paragraph as singling out India for a politically-motivated attack, and mounted a major international diplomatic effort to have it removed. The government of India was widely rumoured to have secured the USA's agreement to exercise its considerable influence to ensure this result, in exchange for which the Indian delegation would promote among developing countries perspectives amenable to the US position on the contentious issues of reparations and Israel/Palestine.

These rumours seemed well-founded when Switzerland, previously a strong and forthright supporter of the paragraph and of the issue, pre-emptively announced its intention at the very beginning of the WCAR to withdraw its support for paragraph 73. Privately, Swiss representatives cited 'extreme pressure, not only from India', as being behind the radical revision of their position. The USA was implicated by a number of diplomats as being responsible for applying this pressure.

Despite strong and active support from Denmark and the Netherlands, the EU's position on the matter always remained equivocal. The Presidency (Belgium) was reported to be disinclined to antagonize India, seeing India as a potential ally on 'other key issues' (i.e reparations and Israel/Palestine). Determined lobbying by NGO representatives succeeded in gathering support from key Latin American, African and Arab countries, as well as from the Holy See and from Canada, but too little and too late to prevent paragraph 73 from being dropped with the other paragraphs still in square brackets at the end of the World Conference.

In the end result, the Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference Against Racism lack a single, even implicit, reference to the daily reality of entrenched discrimination experienced by an estimated 250 million Dalits in South Asia, 3 million Burakumin in Japan, and an unknown number in parts of Africa - a form of discrimination which since 1996 has been repeatedly acknowledged by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as falling under the 'descent' limb of the definition of 'racial discrimination' contained in article 1.1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - November 9, 2001