250 Million Silenced in UN Discrimination Conference
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May 30, 2001 (Geneva) -- NGO members of the Caste and Asia-Pacific Caucuses for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) today charged the Indian government with sabotaging efforts to address caste-based discrimination at the U.N. meet. Caste-based discrimination, affecting at least 250 million people worldwide, is the only issue to have been systematically excluded from the intergovernmental preparatory processes for the conference so far. The World Conference Against Racism will take place in South Africa from August 31 to September 7, 2001.
In several South Asian countries, Dalits or so-called untouchables may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes. They may not use the same wells, visit the same temples and churches, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms, and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste. Dalit women are frequent victims of sexual abuse. Dalits are routinely abused, even killed, at the hands of upper castes that enjoy the state's protection. Caste-based abuses are also prevalent in Japan and parts of Africa.
"The Indian government does not enjoy consensus support within the country to deny the inclusion of such a major issue at this conference," said Indian Member of Parliament Praveen Rashtrapal, currently attending the second preparatory committee meeting (Prepcomm) for the conference in Geneva. "A single government should not be able to stand in the way of addressing an issue that affects so many people in so many parts of the world."
The Indian government also drew fire from members of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) - a network of concerned NGOs, development agencies and international and grassroots human rights organizations - for sending alleged NGO members, who had clearly received a government brief, to disrupt conference activities and argue the government's side. India has also pressured other governments into silence, dominated drafting committees and working groups responsible for the language of the draft declaration and programme of action, and pursuing its official position on caste without parliamentary consultation.
"Despite the assertion of treaty bodies that caste discrimination falls squarely within the mandate of the WCAR, not a single mention of the word caste or Dalit appears in any of the government documents to date," said Paul Divakar, Advocacy Director for the (Indian) National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. "Although South Africa's apartheid was effectively challenged by the international community, Asia's 'hidden apartheid' continues to condemn Dalits or "untouchables" to a lifetime of slavery, segregation, exploitation, and violence. Its place in international consciousness is long overdue."
Non-governmental organizations have also been sidelined along with the caste issue. Despite consistent reiteration of the need for transparency and accountability, NGOs have had little space for interventions during the drafting process. This has served only to marginalize the civil society representatives now present in Geneva, many of whom have come from great distances and at great personal expense.