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Volume 12 Number 2
New Delhi, Summer 2005

UN Special Rapporteurs to Give Fillip to Struggle for Dalit Rights

Rahul Kumar
Deputy Director, One World South Asia

The recent announcement by the annual United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to appoint a Special Rapporteur to tackle the entrenched problem of caste-based discrimination is a shot in the arm for activists fighting for the rights of the Dalits, the oppressed classes, in India. The two rapporteurs, will undertake a three-year study to draft a set of principles and guidelines to eliminate this form of discrimination.

The Convener of the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) Ashok Bharti applauded the development, saying that: “For the first time the world community has accepted caste discrimination in India as a relevant issue. It clearly shows that the UN realises that discrimination exists in South Asia and is an important issue to be dealt with.”

It has been a long and torturous road for Dalit activists who have been reaching out to the international community, particularly the UN, for decades. It was taken up in the early 80s when Dr. Lakshmi Narain Berwa gave a testimony before the UN: on behalf of the Dalits – Knocking for Human Rights: Persecution of Untouchables is no Internal Problem of India.

The World Conference On Racism (WCOR) in South Africa in 2001, better known as the Durban Conference, put a global spotlight on casteism in India.

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) raised the issue of caste-based discrimination at the Durban Conference and found that the Indian government had tried to brush away casteism as an internal matter. It also sought to underplay the existence of caste-based discrimination and tried to hide behind various constitutional provisions that uphold the rights of the oppressed people in India.

“The Vienna Declaration of 1993 declares that any violation of human rights in any part of the world is an international issue. It was then that we realised that such a discrimination exists not only in India but also in many other parts of the world, including Japan, Brazil and even African countries,” said Dr. Umakant, Advocacy Secretary, NCDHR.

The appointment of the Rapporteurs could not have come at a more opportune time because globalisation and economic reforms have seriously hit the poor harder. These people are at a disadvantage, they lack opportunities and they have been left behind even as other sections have benefited from these economic changes.

The Rapporteurs need to take the time to evolve a common statement by all civil society and political stakeholders and formulate a strategy in a participatory way. This strategy should look at providing access to education, skills and employment. These are politically loaded issues which means that neutrality and impartiality is vital.

With the expectations of organisations and activists rather high, the two Special Rapporteurs - Prof. Yozo Yokota from Japan and Prof. Chin Sung Chung from South Korea – have quite a job cut out for them. Since 2000 the UN has undertaken at least three studies on discrimination and then decided to conduct a full fledged study in August 2004 and to prepare a guideline in eliminating discrimination. The Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, which is headed by eminent Indian lawyer and former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, recommended the setting up of two special rapporteurs to the Commission on Human Rights.A positive step forward has been taken, what remains to be seen is whether this will culminate positively as well and make a difference to the lives of Dalits.

CHRI Newsletter, Summer 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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