The following is a statement issued by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong:
The deliberations of senior Indian politicians during the National Integration Council Meeting held in New Delhi on 13 October contradict India's positions in international forums like the UN. The council of ministers who met in New Delhi this week resolved that the country will protect, at all costs, the foundations of secularism, equality, social, economic and political justice and fraternity among all communities. The meeting was held in the context of increasing violent incidents of religious and caste intolerance in India.
The above cited statement contradicts the view expressed by the Indian Government’s delegation at the UN. In a recent meeting held at the UN, India opposed the participation of national and international NGOs working against racial and other contemporary forms of discrimination. This includes caste-based discrimination in the forthcoming Durban Review Conference.
During the PrepCom meetings for the Durban Review Conference held in Geneva between 6-17 October, the Indian delegation vehemently opposed the accreditation of national human rights organisations like the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Swadikar and the international advocacy group the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN).
India's opposition was on the grounds that caste-based discrimination does not fall under the scope of the International Convention against Racial Discrimination (CERD.) The activities of the organisations, therefore, do not fall under the objectives of the Durban Review Conference as such. India ratified the CERD on 3 December 1968. This means that India is bound by the treaty obligation to prevent all forms of racial discrimination, both domestically and internationally. Ratification of the treaty also means that India is bound to promote the scope of the operation of the treaty and the further development of the jurisprudence associated with the treaty.
One such document that affirms that caste discrimination falls under the scope of the term 'descent' mentioned in Article 1(1) of the CERD is General Recommendation 29 issued by the CERD Committee in 2002. The General Recommendation categorically states "that discrimination based on 'descent' includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste [emphasis added] and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights...." The full text of the General Recommendation is available here. This position has been reaffirmed several times by the Committee, the latest being an examination of India in 2007, and report by the Special Rapporteur on racism.
The opposition to accrediting NGOs working on caste-based discrimination contravenes the voluntary pledge made by the country promising the promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights and human values. The pledge was made during India's contest to the UN Human Rights Council. Of specific relevance in this context is the part where India reiterates that it "will continue to encourage efforts by civil society seeking to protect and promote human rights." A complete text of the pledge is available here.
The opposition however did not succeed. The NCDHR, Swadikar and the IDSN were accredited in the PrepCom session with support from the EU spearheaded by the French delegation. France, on behalf of the EU, argued that this form of discrimination does fall under the objectives of the Durban Review Conference. NGOs working on these issues should not be excluded on these grounds. One delegation even mentioned that this would be “discriminatory” and “against the spirit of the Durban Review Conference”. Several other states called for broad civil society participation. The discussion was broadcast live by the UN, of which a summarised text of the discussion is available here.
During the discussions in this meeting, India claimed that it is willing to engage in discussions with members of the civil society at home concerning issues that must be discussed during the Durban Review Conference. However, according to information at the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), no such consultations to date have not been formally organised by the Indian government. There has been no invitation to mainstream NGOs, working on caste-based and other contemporary forms of discrimination, to present their views in preparation for the Durban Review Conference.
India's lack of interest in fostering international human rights mechanisms is further exposed by it’s refraining from promoting universally accepted norms at the domestic level. India has thus far not extended an open invitation to any of the mandate holders under the UN special procedure mechanisms. They have not responded to the questions put forward by the CERD Committee following the examination of India's report in 2007, as otherwise required. This fact adds more credibility to the argument that India, like some other poorly performing member states in the UN uses international human rights mechanisms only for short-term political gains and discreditation of opposing states.
India desperately tries to portray an image of a state that promotes pluralism, equality and fraternity. In comparison to its immediate neighbours, like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, India might be ahead on many fronts. However, the perpetual curse of India, from which most of its inequalities and double standards emanate, is the practice of caste.
A society that has its roots embedded in a caste system cannot easily move forward in ensuring democratic values. The meaning of democracy does not begin or end with an election - the concept of democracy implies much more. A caste system, on the other hand, is not only an impediment to democratic values but is also the legitimisation of inequality shrouded with religion. The mere signing of a human rights document or the making of pledges promising the protection and promotion of human values are of no use in ending discriminatory practices.
What India requires is a strong political will to neutralise this 3000 year-old inhuman practice. But this is what India clearly lacks. Opposing participation by the civil society in discussion forums is most certainly not the way to go forward.
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About the ALRC: The Asian Legal Resource Centre is an independent regional non-governmental organization holding general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is the sister organization of the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Hong Kong-based group seeks to strengthen and encourage positive action on legal and human rights issues at the local and national levels throughout Asia.