The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Githu Muigai, has expressed his serious concern about the continuing existence of the caste system and described caste discrimination as a form of “societal” structural racial discrimination.

Githu Muigai is seriously concerned about the continuing existence of the caste system. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

Even when clear legislation exists to prohibit caste discrimination, individuals and groups of individuals continue to be discriminated. This was one of the important observations on caste made by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Githu Muigai, at the 8th session of the intergovernmental working group that monitors the implementation of the Durban Declaration against racism.

Speaking during a thematic discussion on the issue of structural discrimination, Mr Muigai argued that “systems of inherited status such as caste” may be a manifestation of “societal” structural racial discrimination. He urged states to “review and redesign legislation, policies and programmes” that may discriminate a number of groups, including victims of inherited status systems, i.e. Dalits.

While acknowledging that it is a difficult phenomenon to define, he said that structural racial discrimination refers to “racist, xenophobic and intolerant patterns of behavior” that target people in relation to a number of factors, including descent.

On the issue of caste discrimination, Mr Muigai noted that Scheduled Castes (the official term for Dalits in India and Pakistan) who convert from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam continue to suffer from discrimination while no longer being eligible for government benefits that are available to Dalits.

He reiterated his support for the position on caste discrimination expressed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in its general recommendation No. 29 from 2002, in which discrimination based on ‘descent’ is defined to include discrimination based on “caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their enjoyment of human rights.”

The Special Rapporteur expressed his serious concern “about the continued existence of such systems” and noted that, according to CERD, caste discrimination is a form of racial discrimination and that “the term ‘descent’ has its own meaning and was not to be confused with race or ethnic or national origin.”

Concluding his statement, Mr Muigai presented a number of recommendations on structural discrimination, urging states to take all necessary measures to prevent and eliminate such forms of discrimination.

In recent years, a number of UN Special Procedures mandate holders have addressed the issue of caste discrimination in reports and communications. Githu Muigai has been at the forefront of such efforts, becoming the first Special Rapporteur to endorse the draft UN Principles and Guidelines to eliminate caste discrimination – a groundbreaking international framework to address this form of discrimination.

Read Githu Muigai’s statement on structural discrimination 

IDSN compilation on references to caste discrimination by UN Special Procedures

Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism

IDSN position paper on caste, descent and race