IDSN and the UN OHCHR Minority section brought together an experts’ round table discussion to mark the 30th Anniversary of the UN Minority mandate. It was an incredibly rewarding two hours of discussion and sharing, with a very diverse group of speakers. With activists from all over South Asia, Japan and the USA, participants addressed descent and work-based discrimination (DWBD) and the intersectionality of caste and gender in the business setting.

Lene Wendland, the Chief of Business and Human Rights Development and Social and Economic Issues Branch of the UN OHCHR, opened the meeting by outlining the UN Guiding Principles (UNGP).

The first keynote speaker was Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, who highlighted the fact that although those of ‘particular concern’ are explicitly mentioned in the UN 10+ Roadmap on business and human rights for the next decade, it fails to mention ‘minorities’ or ‘Dalits’. He stressed that Dalits must be “explicitly referred to, acknowledged, and protected”. We need to develop much more precise language and actions to address and improve those most excluded and ‘left behind’.

Tomoya Obokata, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, committed his mandate to addressing the concerns of the DBWD communities and urged all civil society and stakeholders to input into his calls for submissions. He stressed that “voices of survivors of slavery must be heard to deepen understanding of experiences, especially with gender and other intersectional experiences to ensure they are not left behind”.

Fernanda Hopenhaym, Member of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights (WGBHR), noted that while the UNGP 10+ Roadmap did not mention minorities, we should not see this as constricting. The WGBHR has several tools which produce recommendations, but tools themselves are insufficient, recommendations must be followed up on. We need to sensitise businesses to understand these issues and place them in the broader context of systematic and broad reforms.

Martin Oelz, the Senior Specialist on Equality and Non-discrimination at the International Labour Organization, stressed the need for policy, strategies and more specific proactive measures. Mr Oelz also highlighted the ILO’s openness to receiving information from civil society.

All speakers highlighted the intersectional discrimination that affects minority women, who tend to be particularly marginalised or excluded. Dalit women are disproportionately targets of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Case studies from the floor gave evidence to this fact – and only with a global binding agreement to address such violence and harassment, will it cease.

Several activists from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Japan and the USA spoke to give background on the specific issues happening in their country – with ongoing abuses of forced and bonded labour as well as child labour disproportionately affecting those from caste and descent-based communities. While many called for businesses, government and third-party organisations to step up and do more to ensure protection, there was some hopeful news from a Dalit activist based in the USA, who successfully campaigned to ensure caste is a protected characteristic in all California state universities.

Peter McAllister, the Executive Director of the Ethical Trade Initiative UK, stressed the need for a breakaway from the compliance approach to a genuine inquiry approach in order to talk to rights holders. He closed the session by noting that to get caste onto the business agenda, we need to get the politicians to address these issues as well.