Joining a number of Dalit activists, the Independent Expert on minority issues called on governments, UN agencies, and civil society to advance the global struggle against caste discrimination at a meeting held during the 16th session of the Human Rights Council on 16 March. Speakers from six caste-affected countries discussed the key challenges to eliminate this form of discrimination and urged governments to implement international obligations and apply existing frameworks. A UN representative gave examples of practical strategies to combat caste discrimination in Nepal.

Moving forward in the UN system

Under the title ”Discrimination based on work and descent: Implementing human rights for all”, the panellists discussed how to implement existing obligations and standards to promote and protect the rights of victims of caste discrimination. One example was the practical application of the draft UN principles and guidelines to eliminate caste discrimination, published by the Human Rights Council in 2009 but not yet endorsed. Dalit activists speaking at the event appealed to governments – in particular members of the Human Rights Council – to promote and apply this framework and gave examples of how this could be done in practice.

In her opening remarks, the Independent Expert on minority issues, Ms. Gay McDougall, said that she has seen over the years how intractable the caste system is and how difficult it is to move forward, both on the ground and in the UN. She argued that something must be done to strengthen implementation on the ground. With reference to the draft UN principles and guidelines, she said that, ”we are trying to take these guidelines even further and take them through some type of resolution in the HRC; a very difficult thing to do, mainly because of the strong opposition by the Indian government.” She stressed that the first step is to secure that the draft Principles and Guidelines are known, and that was one of the objectives of the meeting.

Practical strategies to combat caste discrimination

Mr. Johan Olhagen from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal gave a presentation on how the Office applies practical strategies to combat caste-based discrimination. He gave examples of how the OHCHR works with national partners in investigating cases, strengthening national institutions such as the National Dalit Commission, conducting joint missions, and supporting civil society in advocating for their rights. He reiterated the strong support to the global struggle expressed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2009, and said that the OHCHR is committed to working with all partners to promote the practical application of the draft UN Principles and Guidelines.

Appeal for concrete national action

The six speakers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Japan, and the UK gave their views on successes and gaps in implementing international human rights standards nationally. A key challenge is how to ‘translate’ the international human rights framework into pratice and make affected groups use the remedies and mechanisms available to them. Furthermore, an ever-increasing number of cases show that governments are not taking enough concrete steps to ensure full implementation of existing laws, and victims continue to face structural discrimination, impunity, and inefficiency of the national human rights protection system.

A number of initiatives have been taken at national level to overcome such obstacles with an outset in the draft UN Principles and Guidelines. In Bangladesh and India, the guidelines have been translated into Bangla and Hindi respectively. In Nepal, Dalit organisations are urging the Government to formulate a national action plan on the guidelines. In Japan, the Buraku community has made an easy-to-read version of the guidelines and involved the youth in making it known and applicable in their local setting.

In closing Ms. McDougall opened the floor for comments on how to move forward at national and global level. She mentioned specialized UN agencies as a way to go around existing blockages, but reminded all that the main responsibility for fighting discrimination is with the governments, regardless of the social structures and mindset.

IDSN recommends the Human Rights Council to endorse the draft UN Principles and Guidelines and recognise the importance of this framework.

The side event was organised by the International Movement against all forms of Racism and Discrimination (IMADR) in association with IDSN.

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