General Secretariat - Office for International Affairs and Human Rights

Sixty-first session
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

Joint statement by the Lutheran World Federation; International Movement Against all forms of Discrimination and Racism; Minority Rights Group International; World Council of Churches; Anti-Slavery International; India Committee of the Netherlands; People's Watch - Tamil Nadu (India); Dalit Solidarity Network (UK); Asian Legal Resource Centre; World Council of Arya Samaj; Bonded Labour Liberation Front (India); Franciscans International; Dalit Solidarity Platform (Germany); Justice and Peace, the Netherlands; Cordaid; Pax Christi International; Pax Romana ICMICA; Tamilnadu Peoples' Forum for Social Development; Human Rights Watch; National Council of Churches in India, Unit on Dalit Concerns; Swedish Dalit Solidarity Network; Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l'Homme; Brot für die Welt; Buraku Liberation League; Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute; Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights; National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, India; Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l'amitié entre les peuples; Sakshi, Dalit Human Rights Watch, Andhra Pradesh; Danish Dalit Solidarity Network; DanChurchAid.

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:

Discrimination based on work and descent is a long-standing practice in many societies throughout the world and affects a large portion of the world's population. Discrimination based on descent manifests itself most notably in caste- (or tribe-) based distinctions. These distinctions, determined by birth, result in serious violations across the full spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Likewise, the nature of a person's work or occupation is often the reason for, or a result of, discrimination against the person. Persons who perform the least desirable jobs in a society are often victims of double discrimination, suffering first from the nature of the work they must perform and suffering again by the denial of their rights because they perform work that is unacceptable. In most cases, a person's descent determines or is intimately connected with the type of work they are afforded in the society. Victims of discrimination based on descent are singled out, not because of a difference in physical appearance or race, but rather by their membership in an endogamous social group that has been isolated socially and occupationally from other groups in the society.14

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:

  • The concept of 'purity-pollution', with certain social groups being regarded as 'dirty', and contact with them as being ritually or actually polluting.
  • An inherited occupational role, typically the most menial and hazardous roles within the society.
  • Socially enforced restrictions on inter-marriage.
  • Segregation in location of living areas, and in access to and use of public places.
In ethnological terms, the features of this sort of social structure have been described as "occupational specialization of endogamous groups, in which membership is based on ascription, and between which social distance is regulated by the concept of pollution".15 This analysis is in fact drawn from a treatise on social stratification in Africa, and Prof. Olivier Gosselain has quoted it in a study on potters' castes in Sub-Saharan Africa - declaring that "These three elements are clearly present within the potters' groupings" he was studying16. But theses same elements link the daily experiences of Dalit communities of South Asia, Buraku people of Japan, and African occupational caste groups.

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.

[Delivered on 8 August 2002]

  1. CERD/C/304/Add.13 (September 1996)
  2. CERD/C/304/Add.108 (August 2000
  3. CERD/C/304/Add.118 (March 2001
  4. A/56/18, Annex VIIA (March 2001)
  5. CERD/C/304/Add.41 (August 1997)
  6. CERD/C/SR.1239 (August 1997)
  7. CERD/C/SR.1341 (August 1999)
  8. CERD/C/304/Add.19 (September 1996)
  9. CRC/C/SR.228 (June 1995)
  10. E/C.12/Q/CAMER/1 (December 1998)
  11. CRC/C/SR.571 (October 1999)
  12. A/C.3/L.1216, 11 October 1965
  13. A/C.3/SR.1304, para.20. See also A/C.3/SR.1306, paras. 25-27.
  14. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/16, para. 7.
  15. Sterner, J. and David, N., Gender and Caste in the Mandara Highlands: Northeastern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon, (1991) Ethnology 30(4): 355-69 at 357, quoting Tuden, A. and Plotnikov, L. (eds.), Social Stratification in Africa, 1970, New York, at 16.
  16. Gosselain, O., Castes, Pottery Technology and Some Historical Processes in Sub-Saharan Africa, paper delivered at a workshop on "Embedded Technologies. Reworking Technological Studies in Archaeology", 24-27 September 2001, University of Wales, Lampeter, United Kingdom

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - August 12, 2002