Discriminatory and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of a vast global population has been justified on the basis of caste. In much of Asia and parts of Africa, caste is the basis for the definition and exclusion of distinct population groups by reason of their descent. Over 250 million people worldwide continue to suffer under what is often a hidden apartheid of segregation, modern-day slavery, and other extreme forms of discrimination, exploitation, and violence. Caste imposes enormous obstacles to their full attainment of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
Caste is descent-based and hereditary in nature. It is a characteristic determined by one's birth into a particular caste, irrespective of the faith practiced by the individual. 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 practice and threat of social ostracism, economic boycotts, and even physical violence.
Among the communities discussed in this report are the Dalits or so-called untouchables of South Asia-including Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan-the Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria's Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal and Mauritania. The prominence of caste as a social and economic indicator for the widespread South Asian diaspora is also discussed. These communities share many features; features that have allowed even the most appalling practices to escape international scrutiny. In many cases, caste systems coexist with otherwise democratic structures. In countries such as India and Nigeria, governments have also enacted progressive legislation to combat abuses against lower-caste communities. Despite formal protections in law, however, discriminatory treatment remains endemic and discriminatory societal norms continue to be reinforced by government and private structures and practices, in some cases through violent means.
Lower-caste communities are almost invariably indistinguishable in physical appearance from higher-caste communities. This is not, as some would say, a black and white issue. For most outsiders then, the visual cues that otherwise accompany race or ethnicity are often completely lacking. Stark economic disparities between low and high-caste communities also get buried under a seemingly homogenous landscape of poverty. Poverty can be quite deceptive. It makes one conclude that all suffer from it equally. A closer look reveals the discrimination inherent in the allocation of jobs, land, basic resources and amenities, and even physical security. A closer look at victims of violence, bonded labor, and other severe abuses also reveals disproportionate membership in the lowest ranking in the caste order. A perpetual state of economic dependency also allows for abuses to go unpunished, while a biased state machinery looks the other way, or worse, becomes complicit in the abuse.
The language used to describe low and high-caste community characteristics in the examples that follow are striking in their similarity, despite the variation in geographic origin, with ideas of pollution and purity, and filth and cleanliness prevalent. In turn, these designations are used to justify the physical and social segregation of low-caste communities from the rest of society, their exclusion from certain occupations, and their involuntary monopoly over "unclean" occupations and tasks.
The exploitation of low-caste laborers and the rigid assignment of demeaning occupations on the basis of caste keep lower-caste populations in a position of economic and physical vulnerability. The triple burden of caste, class, and gender effectively ensures that lower-caste women are the farthest removed from legal protections. Only with the honest implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and of domestic laws designed to abolish the vestiges of various caste systems and to protect the economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights of all, can the process of attaining economic and physical security, and human dignity, begin.
In August 2000 the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights passed resolution 2000/4 on Discrimination Based on Work and Descent.1 The resolution, aimed at addressing the issue of caste, reaffirmed that discrimination based on work and descent is prohibited under international human rights law. The Subcommission also decided to further identify affected communities, examine existing constitutional, legislative, and administrative measures for the abolition of such discrimination, and make concrete recommendations for the effective elimination of such practices.
In August 2001, subcommission expert R.K.W. Goonesekere presented his working paper on work and descent-based discrimination to the subcommission's fifty-third session. The paper was submitted pursuant to Subcommission resolution 2000/4. Because of time and other constraints, Mr. Goonesekere limited the paper's focus to the Asian countries of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Japan but stated that further study of African countries in particular was warranted. The presentation of the paper, and the ensuing debate amongst subcommission experts that followed, marked the first time that caste discrimination was discussed as a major source of human rights violations worldwide by a U.N. human rights body. The subcommission also determined by consensus to extend the study to other regions of the world where work and descent-based discrimination continues to be experienced.
This important resolution underscores the notion that caste systems are inherently economic and social in their consequences and that the exclusion of lower-caste communities extends to the economic and social realms of wages, jobs, education, and land. This report discusses the manifestations of caste and descent-based discrimination and abuse in over a dozen countries. It is not meant to be an exhaustive review but an introduction to the prevalence and global dimensions of this underreported problem. It is also an appeal to governments to give close and systematic attention to the problem of caste discrimination at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and beyond. Despite the magnitude of the problem, as of this writing, caste-based discrimination had been systematically cut out of the WCAR's intergovernmental process through the actions of a handful of governments. This has occurred despite the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's repeated affirmations that caste, as a form of descent-based discrimination, falls within the definition of racial discrimination under article 1 of the ICERD.
Concerted international attention and the commitment of resources to assist national governments in this important work are also long overdue. In many parts of the world, the success of the World Conference will turn upon its commitment to effectively addressing the issue of caste. For at least a quarter-billion people worldwide, the end of apartheid in South Africa did not signal the end of segregation and servitude in their own lives. This important conference can and should bring us closer to this important global goal.