//Caste-Based Discrimination in Nepal

Caste-Based Discrimination in Nepal

Interview with U.N. special representative Ian Martin

Rupesh Silwal (rooproop), 2006/10/22 © 2006 Ohmynews.COM, Korea.

Nepal has survived a decade of internal, armed conflict, which has thrown human rights violations into relief. The root cause of the conflict is social in origin, and centuries of being suppressed and excluded have only fanned the insurgency of the so-called "untouchables" (dalits). OhmyNews citizen reporter Rupesh Silwal interviewed Ian Martin about discrimination based on caste, which is so prevalent in Nepal. Ian Martin is a personal representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Nepal in support of the peace process.

The interview was recorded earlier this year when he headed the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) in Nepal, to which he was appointed in May 2005. The OHCHR's mandate is to monitor and help establish accountability for human rights abuses and to prevent further violations.

With 30 years of experience in the field of human rights, he served as the secretary-general of Amnesty International from 1986 to 1992 and went on to play a central role in several international missions. He was the human rights director of the U.N./OAS (Organization of American States) Mission to Haiti in 1993 and 1995 and served as chief of the U.N. Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda from 1995 to 1996. He was deputy high representative for human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1998 to 1999. Most recently, he served as the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general and as head of the U.N. Mission in East Timor in 1999 and from 2000 to 2001 as the deputy special representative of the secretary-general for the U.N. Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea. He was also special adviser to the high commissioner in Sudan, strengthening the U.N.'s human rights presence in Darfur.

What is your personal impression of dalits in Nepal?

First, I would say that I have an enormous amount to learn. We are just beginning to understanding the dimensions of the problems the dalit community faces. But I was very pleased that when I arrived here many dalit communities invited me to visit their offices, and I established communication with them. So, one thing that's impressed me in the last few years has been a "will" to emerge into public life by the dalits, which is supported by the rest of civil society and whatever encouragement our office can provide.

What is your observation of the dalit movement in Nepal?

Well, first, it has become very active. I have not yet encountered it sufficiently at the local level, something I will do as I travel around the country. But I have also seen great frustration, as government commitments have not been translated into action, something the dalit community has a right to expect. I have also seen frustration with political parties, which have committed themselves on dalit issues but have little to show.

Are you satisfied with ICERD's (International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination) implementation policies?

Well, the international human rights framework can make a limited but important contribution. It is a good thing that Nepal has ratified the ICERD, which provides clearly defined responsibilities. Actually, human rights treaties that Nepal has ratified come under pressure when national sovereignty legislation conflicts with them. The other obligation under the convention is for governments to report from time to time on what action has been taken, which is scrutinized by ICERD. The last time that happened was in 1994. The committee then made 13 recommendations. Next time, Nepal will be examined on what action has been taken as a result. Now, I think that's a lot of international pressure that's been brought to bear, and that can give only some support to your struggle in Nepal.

What would you say about ineffective participation of the committee in Nepal?

Well, how the committee works is by holding hearings in Geneva and periodically examining reports from the government, but it is not a visiting body in general. There are lots of mechanisms at the U.N.'s disposal. A special rapporteur on racial discrimination is appointed by the Commission on Human Rights. He urged the government in June 2004 to agree that he should visit Nepal. The government has not yet set a date for that visit. I think it might take place quite soon. They need to support the work in the regions, but it is not possible for these different bodies to visit every country on a scheduled basis. The advantage we have now is the local presence of the U.N.'s human rights system, and that is us. This can link up with the committee and special rapporteur and contribute to ensuring that more attention is paid to Nepal.

As per your previous experience, how does caste-based discrimination differ in developing nations?

Caste-based discrimination is a specific phenomenon. Different races exist in every country in the world, even in my own country, the U.K.! Sometimes non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the U.K. can help resist racial discrimination. Caste-based discrimination is very special. I lived in India and have some familiarity with caste-based discrimination there. It is a phenomenon that goes very deep in the culture and undoubtedly will take a long struggle to limit.

How does the OHCHR collect data relating to dalits?

Well, we have a very big agenda in this country. Our office has a considerable mandate because of the human rights abuses related to victims of armed conflict. For dalit issues to be addressed effectively one needs a functioning parliament and a democratic system with real representation of dalits and other minority communities, but we are committed to use our limited resources for very long-standing issues of caste discrimination, and we are making a beginning.

What do you suggest for dalit movements in Nepal?

However much international organizations like the U.N. can help, the struggle depends on organizations from within the community, which should be as coordinated as possible with others who are suffering, and this implies an enormous number of relationships. The ICERD has described some 43 measures that a government should take in relation to caste-based discrimination. Ultimately, these things are a matter of mobilizing concern in the community itself and to build alliances with others.

Why is the U.N. more focused on mainstream issues, whereas the major problem lies within the social structure at the local level?

There has been some focus by the U.N. on caste-based discrimination. The International Labor Organization was active in this respect in Nepal long before our office was established here. There are aspects in which international human rights mechanisms are helping, and some are focused on caste-based discrimination; but I quite agree that much more needs to be done, and, again, this is the proper role of the dalit organizations themselves – they should press us. I can promise that our office will work to report on and support dalit organizations in Nepal.