On 19-20 February, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considered the 15th-20th periodic reports of Pakistan on the implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
It was the first time in ten years that the Committee was given the opportunity to review the State Party’s implementation of the Convention. On this occasion, the delegation recognised the challenges faced by the Government of Pakistan in addressing the issue of caste-based discrimination.
During the dialogue it was stressed that the issue of caste-based discrimination in Pakistan was of great concern to the Committee, as remarked by Chris Maina Peter, the Committee Expert serving as country rapporteur for the report of Pakistan. Committee Members called for further statistics and studies on the problem, including bonded labour. They also referred to the findings of the research study “Long Behind Schedule”, supported by IDSN. Among other things, the Committee highlighted that 83 per cent of the Dalit people suffered double discrimination; they did not have access to land and were subjected to bonded labour, and 74 per cent were illiterate.
These particular points were raised in the IDSN co-authored joint NGO report “The Choice of Reforms: The human rights situation of ethnic, linguistic, religious minorities and scheduled caste Hindus and indigenous people in Pakistan” submitted to the Committee ahead of the examination. This report documented the various forms of discrimination on the grounds of caste, which are estimated to affect up to two million scheduled caste Hindus primarily residing in the Sindh province of Pakistan. IDSN furthermore submitted suggestions for issues to be raised in the List of Issues in which these and further concerns were flagged, many of which were reflected in the List of Issues of the Country Rapporteur, as well as in the subsequent questions of the Committee Members.
A summary of the key recommendations were also presented to the Committee members in a lunchtime briefing attended by 11 members on 19 February. In statements prepared by IDSN and Justice and Peace Netherlands, the Committee was recommended to address particular issues of concern in the dialogue with the delegation, including the situation of scheduled caste Hindus and caste discrimination, the lack of disaggregated data, the definition of religious versus ethnic minorities, the independence of the judiciary, the situation of human rights defenders, and double discrimination against women. Unfortunately, no Pakistani civil society representatives were able to attend this briefing due to visa problems. Other than these two presenting organisations, there was an alarming absence of other NGOs involved in the review process and monitoring. Other than two reports prepared by Minority Rights Group International and Asian Centre for Human Rights, there were no other NGOs attending the session itself.
Mr. Zamir Akram , Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva and head of delegation, responded constructively to the Committee’s concerns noting that the Constituion of Pakistan forbade discrimination on the grounds of caste but due to Pakistan’s colonial legacy, this was a problem in the country that had to be dealt with and that efforts were being made to eliminate this type of discrimination. He said that the Government recognizes the challenges faced by Dalits and scheduled caste Hindus, such as bonded labour, but felt that these were also problems associated with other impoverished groups, expressing that the solution was to be found in poverty alleviation and affirmative action. Mr. Akram recognised the work of NGOs working in the Sindh province to alleviate this problem, and highlighted the efforts made by the Thardeep Rural Development Programme which is an organisation closely associated to IDSN.
The delegation mentioned actions taken such as relaxing age limits for Scheduled Castes to obtain government jobs, rural development programmes being carried out in affected regions, and NGOs being encouraged to work with scheduled castes to seek redress for their grievances. To address specifically the issue of bonded labour, Pakistan was working with the International Labour Organization to implement a programme to combat the practice of bonded labour, the delegation noted.
Following these explanations an expert pointed out that caste discrimination was much more than poverty, it was about freedom, access to public spaces, access to jobs and access to education and that lower castes tended to be poor particularly because of the discrimination and isolation they faced. These issues had been affirmed by the Committee in General Recommendation 29 on descent-based discrimination. The delegation replied restating Pakistan’s commitment and will to work to prevent discrimination, and said that it would take the recommendations of the Committee back to the Government for further action.
In his concluding remarks the country rapporteur urged the Government of Pakistan to provide scientifically approved data, as the data provided by Pakistan had not corresponded with that from other sources. While noting the delegation’s position that caste-based discrimination was a matter of poverty, he said that it was an issue of discrimination which needed to be addressed fully by the State Party. IDSN will keep raising the issue, and look forward to seeing changes being made in Pakistan after the recognition by the Pakistani delegation that this is an issue which needs to be addressed by the Government.
Concluding comments are available here and are also posted in the UN section, under CERD.
“Redressing a History of Neglect: Discrimination of Ethnic Groups andIndigenous Peoples of Pakistan “, CERD Shadow report by Minority Rights Group International
“Forced and Bonded Labour in Pakistan”, a briefing paper by Minority Rights Group International