August 30, 2001
Apartheid may have ended in South Africa, but at least 250 million people worldwide are still living in a situation of segregation and servitude. The racism conference cannot ignore this global phenomenon.
Smita Narula, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch

(New York, August 29, 2001) - Caste-based discrimination blights the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the World Conference Against Racism should have the issue squarely on its agenda, Human Rights Watch urged in a new report released today.

The 60-page report, Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern, focuses on the Dalits or so-called untouchables of South Asia - including Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan - as well the Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria, and certain groups in Senegal and Mauritania who also suffer from caste-based discrimination. The prominence of caste among South Asian diaspora communities is also revealed.

"Apartheid may have ended in South Africa, but at least 250 million people worldwide are still living in a situation of segregation and servitude," said Smita Narula, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The racism conference cannot ignore this global phenomenon."

On August 6, 2001, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, an upper-caste Brahmin boy and a lower-caste Jat girl were dragged to the roof of a house and publicly hanged by members of their own families as hundreds of spectators looked on. The public lynching was punishment for refusing to end an inter-caste relationship. Despite a high incidence of egregious crimes such as these, the Indian government claims to have tackled the problem and maintains that is an internal matter.

The government has tried to censor discussion of caste at the conference and at all preparatory meetings leading up to it. India has used political and economic influence over other countries to pressure them into a partnership of silence; they have sent numerous people to non-governmental meetings who had clearly received a brief to argue the government's side, and have used influence within UN human rights bodies to sabotage any reference to caste in conference documents.

The report, which is being released at the nongovernmental forum before the racism conference taking place in Durban from August 28-August 31, clearly shows that caste discrimination is a significant bar to basic human rights worldwide. Over 160 Dalit activists from India will be attending the conference, as well as numerous lower-caste advocacy groups from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Senegal.

Caste denotes a system of rigid social stratification into ranked groups defined by descent and occupation. Under various caste systems throughout the world, caste divisions also dominate in housing, marriage, and general social interaction - divisions that are reinforced through the threat of social ostracism, economic boycotts, and even physical violence.

The report also discusses the strong links between caste, debt bondage, and slavery, as well as exploitation and violence against lower-caste women.