The UN Expert on Human Rights Defenders, Ms. Margaret Sekaggya, spoke out against the unacceptable situation faced by those defending Dalit human rights in South Asia, at a UN side-event, held on March 9th in Geneva, where panellists also included Dalit human rights defenders from several caste-affected countries in the region.
The side-event came as a follow up to the release of Ms. Sekaggya’s reporton the situation of human rights defenders in India, following her 2011 visit to the country. The event also highlighted the plight of Dalit human rights defenders in other caste-affected countries in South Asia. Ms. Sekaggya summarised many of the key findings of her report stating,
“I was deeply disturbed by the situation of Dalit rights activists. I was greatly impressed by their work and courage undertaking these activities. They face death threats, summary executions, beatings and caste-based insults in public places, and destruction of their property and belongings … They are branded as anti-national and placed under surveillance. Police act in collusion with dominant castes, and complaints of violations are not registered by the police.”
In a written statement prepared for the event by Bijo Francis of the Asian Legal Resource Centre the role of the police in violations against Dalit human rights defenders and the need for police reforms stressing that,
“In crimes against the Dalits, persons who belong to privileged classes obstruct investigations and also do not provide the information required to the police. On the other hand witnesses from the Dalit community itself are afraid of the consequences, to them and to their families, and often do not come forward to give evidence. The police then write their reports to the courts stating that there is no evidence to proceed regarding allegations of crime relating to the Dalits … Without achieving this fundamental reform and placing priority on evidence gathering through scientific methods, laws like the Prevention of Atrocities Act (in India) will be of little use.”
Ms.Sekkagaya called for protection of Dalit human rights defenders at both state and national level, suggesting a programme to reach out to the most vulnerable human rights defenders.
Panelists from regional human rights organizations and National Dalit organizations told similar stories of the problems faced by Dalit human rights defenders in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In all countries, including India, Dalit women human rights defenders were found to be particularly at risk. Ms. Nimalka Fernando, President of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) stressed that from a regional perspective,“We are increasingly facing two crucial issues: security and protection … Those who are working on Dalit and minority issues have faced serious repercussions.”
Paul Divakar of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights spoke on the need to break the pattern of impunity, which was one of the key issues highlighted at the event, along with challenge of the implementation of laws and the failing systems of justice in caste-affected countries.
Mr. Divakar offered recommendations on steps forward including that a thematic study of caste discrimination should be undertaken by the UN and that the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of India and the UK should be used as platforms to address the issues faced by Dalits and Dalit human rights defenders.
Mr. Abul Bashar, Coordinator of the Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement, also explained that in Bangladesh, like in some other caste-affected countries, there are no special protection measures for Dalits and that these need to be established. Although they are fighting for the achievement of the most basic rights for their communities, Dalit leaders and human rights campaigners are not recognised as human rights defenders.
The coordinator of the Dalit Solidarity Network in the UK, Ms. Meena Varma, highlighted how the mindset of caste has been exported to the UK and continues to affect the Dalits of the Diaspora communities. Human Rights defenders are campaigning for the UK government to enact legislation to outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste.
The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders concluded that she was deeply concerned about this issue, also at the regional level where she commented that a proper regional mechanism is lacking.
The side-event was sponsored by the International Movement Against All Forms of Racism and Discrimination (IMADR), co-sponsored by the Asian Legal Resource Centre and organized in association with the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, and the International Dalit Solidarity Network.