Minorities and caste-based discrimination side event on a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues

22nd March 2016

Panel of speakers UN side event 16 March 2016

DSN-UK Director, Meena Varma, was invited by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to be one of the panellists for a side event with Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur (SR) on Minority Issues following her report on caste-based discrimination. The event took place on 16 March  2016 and focussed on the global nature of caste discrimination including in Mauritania, Yemen and UK. The SR’s report on caste-based discrimination as presented below provided the perfect opportunity to widen the discussion beyond South Asia.

Alongside Meena and Rita the event featured  Ms. Mohna Ansari, Member of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, Ms. Rania El Rajji, Middle East Programme Coordinator, Minorities Right Group International and Ms. Salimata Lam, National Coordinator SOS-Esclaves, Mauritania.

When asked by the Moderator, Mr. Antti Korkeakivi, Chief, Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights what were the good practice examples of the next steps to address this issue, Rita replied that this was the $1 million question as it was a matter of changing mindsets.

Mohna said that the National Human Rights Institute in Nepal sets a very good example at both policy and practice levels. The challenge remains in inter-caste marriage, which many find unacceptable. But there is legislation in the new Constitution to address the issue of ‘untouchability’ with compensation built in.

Salimata informed us of the situation in Mauritania – ‘In the eyes of the law, we are all equal, but societally other norms hold sway. Even a destitute will invoke his noble status and the taboos remain because there are no laws to overturn the caste system itself.’

Rania apologised that there was no representative from the affected community in Yemen. This is due to the ongoing violence and the current ‘no-exit’ policy. The Al Akhdam (translated as Slaves) now call themselves Muhamasheen (marginalised ones). Their occupational roles include garbage collection, street sweeping and cleaning toilets and drains. They suffer from social stigma and discrimination, which exacerbate their socio-economic exclusion and poverty. Rania stressed the need to raise awareness to the affected community of their own rights – so that they could begin to demand them.

Meena stressed the role of the ‘rule of law’.  We may not be able to change mindsets (certainly not in a generation) BUT we can change behaviours where the rule of law holds sway and legislation is implemented effectively. That is why the UK legislation has such a role to play as it will send a clear message to those countries where there is no political or judicial will to address caste-based discrimination and better the lives of millions.

Rita reiterated the commitment of the mandate to addressing caste-based discrimination which had begun under the tenure of the first SR on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall. Despite the challenges she will continue to keep the issue high on the UN agenda!

IDSN delegation and Kate Gilmore

Earlier that day a delegation from the International Dalit Solidarity Network met the new Deputy High Commissioner, Kate Gilmore. She received detailed updates from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the current position in the UK and the lack of implementation of the legislation to protect potential victims in the diaspora communities of caste-affected countries.