(New York) - The Indian government should take immediate steps to implement the recommendations of a United Nations committee that found persistent violence and discrimination against Dalits, or so-called “untouchables,” a group of international human rights organizations said today.

The organizations include Human Rights Watch, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law, and the International Dalit Solidarity Network.

On March 9, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued its Concluding Observations regarding India’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Committee’s report found that “de facto segregation of Dalits persists” and highlighted systematic abuse against Dalits including torture and extrajudicial killings, an “alarming” extent of sexual violence against Dalit women, and caste discrimination in post-tsunami relief.

The Committee called for effective measures to implement laws on discrimination and affirmative action, and sought proper protection for Dalits and tribal communities against acts of “discrimination and violence.” The Committee has given India a year to respond to four of its recommendations, including its recommendations on how India can end widespread impunity for violence against Dalits, and Dalit women in particular.

“The UN Committee’s concluding observations confirm that India has failed to properly protect Dalits and tribal communities,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “This is a prime opportunity for India to give its own policies on discrimination some meaning. Laws need to be implemented, and those who violate them must be prosecuted.”

The Concluding Observations were issued following two days of hearings in Geneva on February 23 and 26 between Committee members and the Indian delegation. During the hearing, Committee members uniformly took issue with the Indian government’s refusal to acknowledge that caste-based discrimination is covered by the Convention and is an issue of international human rights concern.

In particular, the Committee called on the Indian government to:

  • Introduce mandatory training on the application of India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for police, judges and prosecutors, and take disciplinary measures against those who fail to implement this law.
  • Ensure the protection of witnesses and victims to caste-based crimes and ensure their immediate access to effective remedies.
  • Prosecute and punish perpetrators of sexual violence and sexual exploitation of Dalit women, and sanction anyone found preventing or discouraging victims from reporting such incidents, including public officials.
  • Eradicate the social acceptance of caste-based discrimination through public education and awareness campaigns.
  • Ensure equal access to health care, safe drinking water, and other public services.
  • Investigate all alleged cases of discrimination against Dalits in post-tsunami relief and compensate or retroactively grant benefits to victims of such discrimination.
  • Take effective measures to reduce dropout rates and increase enrollment rates among Dalits at all levels of schooling by providing scholarships and by ending classroom segregation.
  • Ensure proper enforcement of reservations or quotas to counter the under-representation of Dalits and tribal communities in government and public services.
  • Adopt measures to enhance Dalits’ access to the labor market, including by extending the reservation policy to the private sector.
  • Repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that, while providing the armed forces with widespread powers to search, arrest and shoot suspects, leading to allegations of human rights abuses, has immunity provisions under which troops cannot be prosecuted unless authorized by the Central Government.

The Concluding Observations reflect the Committee’s disappointment with India’s presentation before the Committee on February 23 and 26. Despite India’s Solicitor General Goolam Vahanvati’s claim to the Committee that the government is “deeply conscious and concerned about caste and is fully committed to tackling this at every level,” the Indian delegation resorted to a semantic debate on the difference between caste and race to support its erroneous assertion that the Convention only covers race-based discrimination.

Citing India’s extensive laws and policies to end caste-based discrimination, none of which have been faithfully implemented, the Indian delegation also questioned the credibility of the Committee’s sources of information. These sources included reports of India’s own governmental agencies and numerous reports by Indian and international nongovernmental organizations, including “Hidden Apartheid,” which the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) along with Human Rights Watch produced as a “shadow report” ahead of CERD’s review of India’s periodic report.

In its Concluding Observations, “the Committee reaffirm[ed] that discrimination based on the ground of caste is fully covered by article 1 of the Convention.” It cited its position expressed in General Recommendation No. 29, “that discrimination based on ‘descent’ includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights.”

“The Indian delegation’s arrogant rejection of well-documented abuses against Dalits before UN experts in Geneva mirrors India’s systematic denial of Dalit rights at home,” said Professor Smita Narula, faculty director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. “India once again squandered an opportunity to enlist the support of experts in its efforts to ensure equality in law and practice for its citizens.”

Comprised of independent experts from around the world, the Committee was led in its review by Mr. Linos-Alexander Sicilianos of Greece. On December 27, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh likened the practice of untouchability in India to apartheid in South Africa. “After this statement,” Siciliano said, “I sincerely feel that the official position [of the Indian delegation…] is simply untenable.” The Committee formally noted its appreciation for the prime minister’s remarks in their Observations.

Committee members characterized India’s position as a “broken record,” a “step backwards,” and cautioned that India should not “confuse growth with development.” Sicilianos reminded the government that “change cannot be achieved by legislation alone.” The Committee also highlighted its concern over “abuses at the local level” for which “radical measures” were necessary. The Indian government’s position left Committee members asking why India did not choose to view the review as “an opportunity rather than a threat.” Committee members also noted that caste-based discrimination was not unique to South Asia, but also existed in many parts of Africa The Committee’s sharp rebuke to the Indian government has been matched by growing scrutiny both inside and outside the country. On February 1, 2007 the European Parliament passed a resolution voicing strong concern about the plight of Dalits in India and urging the government to engage with relevant UN bodies, including CERD.

“Instead of sidestepping its responsibilities, India should welcome assistance from the international community to eliminate caste-based discrimination,” said Rikke Nöhrlind, coordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network. “The fact that European Parliament strongly urged its own institutions to address caste discrimination in all EU-India relations reflects growing worldwide concern about India’s ‘hidden apartheid.’”

More than 165 million people in India continue to be subject to discrimination, exploitation and violence simply because of their caste. In India’s “hidden apartheid,” untouchability relegates Dalits throughout India to a lifetime of segregation and abuse. Caste-based divisions continue to dominate in housing, marriage, employment and general social interaction—divisions that are reinforced through economic boycotts and physical violence.

“Hidden Apartheid,” which was produced as a “shadow report” ahead of CERD’s review of India’s periodic report, documents India’s systematic failure to respect, protect and ensure Dalits’ fundamental human rights. Severe violations persist in education, health, housing, property, freedom of religion, free choice of employment and equal treatment before the law.

The report also documents routine violations of Dalits’ right to life and security of person through state-sponsored or sanctioned acts of violence, including torture. Dalit women face multiple forms of discrimination and are frequent targets of sexual abuse. State and private actors enjoy virtual impunity for these crimes.