Racism conference accused of shunning 260 million Dalits

By Ecumenical News International
April 24, 2009

Among the many arguments within and about the controversial UN review conference on racism, one that has attracted less media coverage is the overlooking of the struggles of 260 million so-called 'untouchables' in South Asia.

Peter Kenny writes: There is an untouchable word that appears nowhere in the declaration of the UN conference in Geneva reviewing progress on fighting racism. It is Dalit, the self-designation of a South Asian group traditionally regarded as untouchable or of the lowest caste.

"Caste discrimination is one of the most important issues being left out of this conference," said Peter Prove of the Lutheran World Federation. The Australian human rights lawyer has worked with the Geneva-based LWF for many years towards eliminating discrimination against Dalits.

The 20 to 24 April meeting has been a cocktail of politics and polemics. Religion and religious groups have played activist roles around the conference that has sought to review progress towards the goals set at a UN conference on racism, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001 and has been dubbed Durban II.

Paul Divakar, the convenor of the Delhi-based National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights told Ecumenical News International, "We are totally excluded. There is not a single word in the declaration even although this is an abominable practice that affects 260 million people." He noted, "The Durban II conference has totally eliminated any mention of caste or discrimination based on work and descent."

Divakar said that in India, a country that prides itself as being the world's biggest democracy, more than 167 million people, or more than 10 percent of the population, are from the Dalit communities and suffer from caste discrimination.

Some activists said that India had been successful in using its regional might and its position as an ally of Western countries in keeping the Dalit issue off the UN agenda, but none wanted to go on the record saying this for fear of jeopardising their work there.

The first day of the meeting got off to a rocky start on 20 April when diplomats from 23 nations, including Britain and France, walked out of the UN's Palais des Nations in Geneva during a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he accused Israel of being "a totally racist government" and in which the original text had words interpreted as Holocaust denial.

The Iranian president's speech was applauded by some nations. Ahmadinejad, however, drew strong condemnation from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Navi Pillay, the South African jurist who is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and who described the Iranian president as "somebody who traditionally makes obnoxious statements".

But by the end of the second day top United Nations officials were congratulating themselves at adoption of "an outcome document, emphasising the need to address all manifestations of intolerance with greater resolve".

US Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "heartened" that all states at the five-day gathering in Geneva had adopted the text by consensus, signalling the international community's rejuvenation of its commitment to implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action agreed on in 2001.

But the following day, a group of non-government and religious groups released a statement calling on the international community to take action on caste-based discrimination which violates the rights of 260 million people globally.

The group includes Human Rights Watch, the Lutheran World Federation, Pax Romana, the Tokyo-based International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, Copenhagen-based International Dalit Solidarity Network, the Delhi-based National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and FORUM-ASIA.

Representatives from Dalit communities spoke at a Palais des Nations news briefing to explain how they are afflicted. Fatima Burnad and Dibakar Poricha explained how Dalits are subject to violence, rape, inhumane "untouchability practices", and suffer routine discrimination, socially, culturally and politically. They lamented that due to the high level of impunity in cases involving Dalit victims, they have few means to assert their rights through the judicial system.

The women referred to a "hidden apartheid" which they likened to a modern-day slavery because they have been born into a marginalised group or caste.

Rikke Nöhrlind, coordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network told journalists, "This issue has been skilfully hidden by certain governments and Dalits are simply being treated as lesser human beings and denied justice."

Scores of Dalits travelled to Geneva, saying they are determined to keep fighting for their rights and to try and get the international community to listen. They joined the plethora of side events getting as much attention as the delegates inside the Palais des Nations.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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