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Is Durban the Answer?

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Is Durban the answer?

The Hindu
Online edition of India’s National Newspaper
Sunday, September 02, 2001

#UnFair #UN #DurbanConference

Dalit activists hope that raising the issue of caste at the Durban conference will pressure the Government to implement protection and affirmative action laws more effectively in favour of the underprivileged. VIR SINGH writes.

WHEN Madhuri Devi complained about the wife beating going on next door, people in her north Delhi neighbourhood dismissed it as an internal family matter. When she went to the local police station, the officer on duty angrily asked: Why is it your concern? Who are they to you?

These key questions will come up before the international community when scores of activists highlight the suffering of Dalits at a major U.N. conference on racism and other discrimination which started on August 31 in the South African port city of Durban.

The Indian government has marshalled mighty arguments as to why caste discrimination should not be discussed at the event, which is titled the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Chief among these is the contention that this problem is an internal matter.

Dalit activists ridicule this position, saying this is akin to the case made by the former rulers of South Africa just a decade ago to shield apartheid from outside scrutiny. India rightly rejected this argument, loudly declaring that the mistreatment of black Africans is a global concern. So how can New Delhi use the selfsame strategy to block wider discussion of a problem that affects tens of millions of Indian citizens every single day?

Well, the short answer is that it can and it will. India has more than enough diplomatic clout to ensure that references to discrimination based on “descent” – the compromise term for caste that human rights activists have injected into U.N. documents – are kept to a bare minimum in the Durban conference declaration and action plan. Most Dalit activists know this. The more compelling story, however, is about what they have already achieved.

The beginnings of a global Dalit movement have been traced back to the mid-1970s (see Gail Omvedt’s article, The Hindu, April 2001). The last five-odd years have seen this process gathering momentum. In 1996, the U.N. Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination accepted the contention of human rights lawyers that its responsibilities include monitoring discrimination based on descent. (This makes it mandatory for all governments to file progress reports on actions taken to halt such discrimination). Two years later, activists from across India came together under the banner of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. Last year, New York-based Human Rights Watch presented its highest award to Martin Macwan, a lawyer and Dalit activist from Ahmedabad.

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The Durban conference “is a sort of organising event,” says Maja Daruwala, director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Intiative. “There’s been a lot of solidarity, and a lot of churning, a lot of movement. (Dalit groups) are coming together and their demands are being amplified.”

To the charge from some quarters that highlighting abuses against Dalits gives India a bad name in the eyes of the world and is therefore an anti-national activity, Daruwala responds: “It is anti-national to continue with caste discrimination in this country… It is like saying to a woman that she is against family life because she is beaten at home, but she musn’t speak about it outside. You don’t blame the victim for making a noise.”

It is a powerful analogy and, for some Dalit activists, one that offers hope. Years of campaigning for women’s rights, especially at the international level, finally got governments to start doing something to prevent abuses such as wife beating. Similarly, Ashok Bharti of the Centre for Alternative Dalit Media hopes that a frank discussion of caste discrimination at Durban will “bring the issue in focus” once again and pressure the Indian government to implement protection and affirmative action laws.

“Those issues have been purposely kept away from the international forum,” he says. “And this time when it is going to be discussed, the government of India and the nation as a whole is responsible to the whole world community.”

“Our faith has been broken,” adds P.L. Mimroth, a lawyer working with Dalit victims. “That’s why we’re going to the conference.” He says that despite special laws guaranteeing compensation to members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who face atrocities, the government has fulfilled its responsibilities in only a handful of cases.

The caste debate is just one of the controversies dogging the Durban conference. After two years of preparatory meetings, governments are still deeply divided over the wording of a political statement and a comprehensive action plan to address racism and related problems.

The United States has repeatedly threatened to pull out if references against Israel are not removed. A group of mostly Islamic nations wants the conference documents to equate Zionism with racism, saying this accurately describes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Washington boycotted two earlier U.N. racism meetings, in 1978 and 1983, because of similar disputes involving Israel, a staunch U.S. ally.

The issue of compensation to countries, mostly in Africa, that still suffer from the effects of slavery, presents an even greater challenge for governments trying to hammer out a common agenda at Durban. The European Union led by Great Britain has joined the United States in opposing any mention of “compensation” for the formerly enslaved countries.

“This is a world conference that quite a number of governments would have preferred didn’t happen,” says Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and chief organiser of the Durban conference. “That’s why as far as I am concerned this is a victims’ conference,” she said in an interview to the Ford Foundation Report. “It has to speak for and listen to the voices of those who are marginalised, excluded, discriminated against and put down because of their color or their background.”

The politically charged atmosphere of the conference has even seasoned U.N. monitors worried. “I have great concerns about what’s going to come out of it,” says Michael Colson, director of Geneva-based U.N. Watch. One problem is that governments have, according to Colson, failed to “de-politicise the debate on human rights.” The other is that the U.N. meeting has become less focussed over time, so that “it’s an open question now as to how wide the conference agenda is.” 

The author is an independent journalist.



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UN Racism Conference Fails on Caste-Based Discrimination

UN Racism Conference Fails on Caste-Based Discrimination

Document Ignores Abuses Against 260 Million People

#UnFair #UN #DurbanConference

(Geneva) – The international community should take action on caste-based discrimination, which violates the rights of 260 million people globally, a group of nongovernmental organizations including Human Rights Watch, Lutheran World Federation, Pax Romana, IMADR, IDSN, NCDHR, and FORUM-ASIA said at a news conference on caste-based discrimination and the Durban Review Conference.

The Durban Review Conference was organized to evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Millions of victims of caste-based discrimination, hoping that the conference would serve as a platform to highlight their problems, were left deeply disappointed.

“Caste discrimination is one of the most important issues being left out of this conference and because of the predominant attention to one specific issue, all other concerns within the field of racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and racial intolerance are being excluded,” said Peter Prove of the Lutheran World Federation, who has worked for many years toward eliminating caste discrimination.

Dalits have long claimed that caste- and descent-based discrimination falls under the remit of this conference. Despite this, the final outcome document makes no reference to caste-based discrimination.

“Caste discrimination is a major global human rights issue that needs to be effectively dealt with at the international level,” said Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “As the UN racial discrimination committee has made perfectly clear, caste discrimination falls under the Race Convention, and thereby within the scope of this review conference.”

Even as the issue is ignored at the conference, caste discrimination remains a massive problem in countries like India, where ongoing elections have once again exposed the challenges faced by Dalits. NCDHR, which has been monitoring the elections, has found that many Dalits are not being allowed to freely exercise their democratic rights, and are being beaten, threatened, and obstructed from voting at local polling stations.

“This Durban Review Conference has totally eliminated any mention of caste or discrimination based on work and descent,” said Paul Divakar of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) in India, where more than 167 million from the Dalit communities suffer from caste discrimination.

Representatives from the Dalit communities present at the news conference also included Fatima Burnad and Dibakar Poricha, who explained how Dalits were subjected to violence, rape, inhumane untouchability practices, and suffered routine discrimination, socially, culturally and politically. They also explained that due to the high level of impunity in cases involving Dalit victims, they have no way of asserting their rights through the judicial system.

Pointing out that victims of caste-based discrimination suffer a hidden apartheid of segregation, modern-day slavery, and other forms of discrimination as a result of having been born into a marginalized group or caste, Rikke Nöhrlind, coordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), stated: “This issue has been skilfully hidden by certain governments, and Dalits are simply being treated as lesser human beings and denied justice.”

Determined to keep fighting for their rights and to try and get the international community to listen, a sizeable delegation of Dalit representatives has travelled to Geneva to stage a number of side events and raise their voices against the wall of silence they are met with at the Durban Review Conference.


  • Caste discrimination is any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on inherited status such as work and descent, commonly originating from a division of society into castes or social categories. This chronic human rights condition, which is associated with the notion of impurity, pollution, and practices of “untouchability,” involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. It is estimated that 260 million people are affected by caste discrimination worldwide.
  • The Durban Review Conference is being held in Geneva from April 20 to 24, 2009, with thepurpose of reviewing the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA).
  • The Durban Declaration and Plan of Action (DDPA)includes several provisions relevant in the fight against this form of discrimination, andseveral UN bodies – in particular the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) – have repeatedly reaffirmed that caste falls underthe Race Convention.
  • Several UN bodies have furthermore reaffirmed that discrimination based on work and descent – the UN terminology for caste discrimination – is prohibited by international human rights law, and that it is a global human rights phenomenonwhich should be addressed comprehensively through existing human rights mechanisms.
  • Human Rights Watch has also previously highlighted the need for tackling the causes and consequences of this kind of discriminationby, among other things, encouraging delegations to welcome the work carried out by CERD on discrimination based on descent, to review CERD’s General Comment No. 29 on Descent, and to include reference to it as a guiding opinion in defining and combating descent-based discrimination.

To read a joint position paper prepared by IDSN, Human Rights Watch, NCDHR and other organizations, please visit:

For more information on the Durban Review Conference, please visit:

For more of Human Rights Watch’s work on India, please visit:

For more of IDSN’s work, please visit:

  • The IDSN website – provides a wide range of resources and material on the topic of caste-discrimination including case studies, video materials, and research materials.

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