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'India must act immediately against violence on Dalits'

March 13, 2007 00:56 IST

International human rights organisations have called upon the Indian government to take steps to implement the recommendations of a United Nations committee that found persistent violence and discrimination against Dalits.

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

"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."

On March 9, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 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 extra-judicial 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 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 of caste-based crimes and ensure their immediate access to effective remedies and 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.

IT also urged the government to 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 authorised by the central government.

In a statement the group said that 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," it said.

Comprising independent experts from around the world, the Committee was led in its review by Linos-Alexander Sicilianos of Greece. On December 27, 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.

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York