The Hon Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10
Dear High Commissioner
On behalf of the 87 member organisations of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, an International NGO in Special Consultative status with the United Nations, I extend our whole hearted support to your untiring efforts in organising the forthcoming World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (South Africa, 31 August – 7 September 2001).
In this context, we would like to bring to your attention the fact that only last Saturday, our member organization the Norwegian Humanist Association coordinated a spectacular show of solidarity by 134 national organisations as well as all the life stances and political parties to demonstrate in Oslo city centre against growing Racism and Nationalism.
In this, and in other ways, Humanists join hands with others to draw from the resources of the community, to set the tone for social change, and to strengthen the efforts of the UN to bring about a global focus and consensus on some of the most pressing problems of the world.
We are now writing in response to your invitation to be present at the proposed regional Experts Seminar in Bangkok 5-7 Sept 2000, which will be a preliminary meeting for the World Conference Against Racism next year. As the various regional meetings are where the agenda for next year’s conference will be set, we are disappointed that the theme of the Experts Seminar in Asia is restricted to ‘Migrants and Trafficking in Persons with Particular Reference to Women and
While this problem is indeed an important one, may we suggest that Asia’s problems in relation to racism are more complex that can be covered by this inadequate theme. For example, the question of Castes in Hindu society needs particular attention by the global community within the framework of the proposed World Conference Against Racism.
Codified in ancient law, regulated by restrictions on marriage, perpetuated by religious orthodoxy, members of Hinduism’s lower castes are excluded from society, denied access to community resources, including even community wells for drinking water. Traditionally excluded from sacred rites and all social intercourse, and condemned to a life of disposing human feces and removing animal carcases, Dalits, or India’s so-called untouchables are now also victims of higher caste militias and police atrocities. Despite legal safe guards, official Indian figures show that caste crimes against ‘untouchables’ average over 10000 a year; in 1989 alone the figure was 14,269 cases…
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) defines “racial discrimination” as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” Indeed, the Aryan term ‘Varna’ which is used interchangeable with the term ‘caste’ literally means colour; further, the Portuguese when introducing the term ‘caste’ for Hindu society’s unequal and inflexible hierarchy, intended it to different proportions of racial purity!
The plight of the victims of the caste system comes fully within the scope of the proposed World Conference Against Racism. In fact, the UN’s own Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in its session on 17 September 1996 affirmed that the situation came within the purview of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Both the CERD as well as the Human Rights Committee (HRC), monitoring bodies under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, respectively, have expressed concern over the severe social discrimination still practised against members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (untouchables or Dalits) in India.
Of course, the resolution of the problem lies in a complete dismantling of the jati-varna (caste) system, not just criminalisation of untouchability; but a beginning must be made internationally towards dismantling India’s own apartheid. And at 200 million, India’s Dalits number more than the combined populations of England, France and Spain, and do deserve the attention of the UN. Er are hopeful that your office will take adequate steps to ensure the consideration of this terrible problem on the World Conference agenda and may we suggest that it find a place already at the Asian Regional meeting to be held in Tehran 19-21 Feb 2001.
Babu Gogineni, Secretary General
Letter from Secretary General
'World conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (2000-08)', Humanists International