A Politics of Denial

On the sidewalk outside the Durban International
Convention Center last September, members of India's lowest "untouchable" castes
staged a hunger strike. They were protesting their government's refusal to let
the issue of caste come before the United Nations' World Conference Against
Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR). On the
terrace of the nearby convention-center hotel, meanwhile, their government's
official delegates to the WCAR sat among the world's other ministers, presidents,
and generals, lunching and chatting about cricket matches. Occasionally, the ring
of a cell phone pulled one of them away from the table for an earnest
conversation. To the press and the representatives of their country's most
oppressed citizens, they would only say that they were busy and promise to talk
about caste "when we have some time." But the Indian delegates, like those from
most other governments at the conference on racism, never did find the time to
discuss discrimination occurring inside their own borders.

The WCAR, held during the first week of September in Durban, South Africa,
was an unprecedented gathering that organizers hoped would finally give voice to
thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that represent minority
populations and historically oppressed groups ranging from American Indians and
European Gypsies to Afro-Brazilians. At the NGO Forum preceding the conference,
the groups were expected to agree upon a list of the gravest issues, which would
then be put before the world's governments. The ultimate goal of each group was
to gain enough international support to have its particular concerns included in
the WCAR's final declaration. While not legally binding, such UN declarations have
traditionally established norms of internationally acceptable conduct, standards
that might eventually shape the laws and behavior of nations.

The WCAR may have been a disappointment to many of those who attended. But
contrary to reports in much of the Western media and rhetoric from the U.S. and
Israeli governments, the WCAR was not a "circus" characterized by rampant
anti-Semitism and ubiquitous Israel-bashing so much as it was a battle between
NGOs that came to accuse their governments of human-rights violations and
political elites hell-bent on denying them. In speeches and behind closed doors,
the world's governments tried to cover up and minimize the grievances raised by
the NGOs, either dismissing them as exaggerated or insignificant, or, when
unavoidable, reverting to the universal mantra "That's an internal affair."
Despite the oft-quoted speeches of South African President Thabo Mbeki and
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, which described a world divided between rich
and poor nations, it quickly became all too evident that the real divide in
Durban lay not between first-world and third-world nations but between the
political class everywhere and its subjects.

By far the most visible group protesting government trampling of
their rights were India's Dalits, or untouchables, also known as "Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes." Although caste-based discrimination is technically
illegal under the Indian constitution, it remains prevalent throughout rural
India because of ingrained social attitudes and the influence of 3,000-year-old
Hindu law. Dalit organizations cited the recent incineration of 40 houses
belonging to untouchables in the northern state of Maharashtra, as well as the
frequent assaults, rapes, and murders of Dalits throughout the country, as
grounds for UN attention to the issue. The National Human Rights Commission of
India documented 98,349 reported crimes against Dalits between 1994 and 1996,
including 1,660 murders, 2,814 rapes, and numerous other offenses: Dalits forced
to eat excrement and drink urine, for instance, or publicly stripped and paraded
through their villages.

Dalit representatives said that little has changed since then. Worse still,
hardly anyone is ever convicted of these crimes. According to a recent article in
The Hindu, a Madras newspaper, the conviction rate for perpetrators of
crimes against Dalits in 1998 (the most current data available) was a mere 1.14
percent. A 1999 Human Rights Watch report found that many cases of abuse are not
even acknowledged, or "registered," by police; and when cases do get registered,
the charges are often diluted as a result of widespread police corruption.
Evidence also suggests that the caste affiliation of police officers leads them to
side with upper-caste perpetrators rather than Dalit victims; and even in the few
cases that the police pursue, justice comes slowly, owing to a lack of the
special prosecutors and courts that their cares require.

The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) came to Durban demanding
recognition of caste-based discrimination in the WCAR declaration. Velupann
Karuppan, an NCDHR leader, told me that as a Dalit "you cannot take water from
the general well, you have to take it from a separate well. You cannot bury [a
Dalit's] dead body in the common place; you have to use a separate burial
ground." He gestured toward a companion, who gave his name only as Shekhar. "He
cannot enter into the temple even though he is a Hindu," Karuppan said.

"We have been deprived of all the facilities which a human citizen should
have," Shekhar added. "I don't have citizenship rights in [my] country. I don't
take water in the public place, I don't walk in the public streets; they're
prohibited. So what citizenship rights do I have?"

The Dalit caucus arrived in Durban with a formidable publicity army of more
than 200 representatives. (The more typical NGOs sent five to 10.) By the time the
official conference opened, NGO delegates and journalists from all over the world
were sporting vests, shirts, stickers, and buttons with the slogan "Include Caste
in WCAR." But widespread popular support and a great deal of sympathy from the
international press were not enough to counter the international clout of the
Indian government and the game of diplomatic hardball it played.

In the months before the conference, the Indian delegation dominated drafting
committees and threatened economic pressure against other countries in its
campaign to keep caste off the agenda. Human Rights Watch, other NGOs, and a
dissenting Indian member of parliament present at the Geneva preparatory meeting
in August characterized the behavior as "sabotage." Upon arrival in Durban,
India's resistance only hardened. Though UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a
point of referring to victimization based on descent in his opening speech to the
conference plenary, the Indian government consistently condemned any attempt by
the United Nations to address the issue. Speaking to the same body, Indian
Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah lashed out at his critics:
"There has been propaganda, highly exaggerated and misleading, often based on
anecdotal evidence, regarding caste-based discrimination in India." He went on to
insist that "we in India have faced this evil squarely," citing affirmative action
programs for Dalits, Article 15 of the Indian constitution (which prohibits
caste-based discrimination), and a 1989 law against caste-based violence--the
Prevention of Atrocities Act.

His argument was not terribly convincing. As NCDHR representative Shekhar told
me, "Though there is a constitution, it is only available on paper." Later, in an
address to the conference plenary, Dalit spokesman Paul Divakar embarrassed the
Indian delegation by pointing out that the "propaganda" cited by Abdullah
consisted exclusively of reports from the government's own Human Rights
Commission. As for India's Prevention of Atrocities Act, Shekhar was hardly
exaggerating when he said it "is not being implemented at all." The Indian Human
Rights Commission reported in 1994 that only two of the country's 22 states had
set up the special courts the act requires; and according to Human Rights Watch,
to this day none of the states has implemented the act in its entirety.

Nevertheless, Minister Abdullah remained adamant that India's constitutional
and legal remedies are enough and that the United Nations has no business taking
up the issue. "It is neither legitimate nor feasible nor practical," he said,
"for this World Conference or, for that matter, even the UN to legislate, let
alone police, individual behavior in our societies."

"They say it's an internal matter and you don't need to go to the UN,"
Karuppan told me one evening. "I told them we've waited 50 years to get relief
and you have not solved the problem, so we had to go to the outside... . They
should have a time limit to get it done ... five years, 10 years. But 50 years
have passed and nothing happened."

Most WCAR delegates, however, seemed to conclude that their own interests were
best served by backing the status quo. The Dalits came away from the conference
with verbal support from Canada, Guatemala, and Norway, but with no more legal
protection or official UN recognition of their plight than when they arrived.

They were not the only group given short shrift. Those speaking
for present-day slaves in Africa received even less attention from the WCAR
delegates than the untouchables did. As the conference wound to a close, African
demands for an apology and reparations for the transatlantic slave trade of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries prompted fierce debates, but the issue of
slavery in Africa today was never even raised at the official conference.

Garba Diallo, a black Mauritanian living in exile in Denmark, came to
Durban as the representative of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania.
During the NGO Forum, he pleaded for consideration of the historic and continuing
enslavement of blacks in Mauritania by lighter-skinned Arabs, a practice that has
been documented by the international press and numerous antislavery
organizations. Diallo was joined by representatives of El Hor ("The Free"),
Mauritania's oldest antislavery organization, as well as the New York-based
Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Mauritania (CDHRM). They described
tensions between Mauritania's Arab ruling class and its large black minority that
have existed since the country gained independence in 1960. The Arabization
policies of the Mauritanian government, including land-confiscation laws,
marginalized the country's so-called free black ethnic groups--the Fulani, Wolof,
Bambara, and Soninke--and boiled over in 1989 into a border war with Senegal,
during which tens of thousands of Mauritania's free blacks were driven into

Diallo and his colleagues, however, are most concerned about another group of
blacks in Mauritania who have long been enslaved by Arab masters and rarely
challenge their condition. Nor is that condition always apparent to foreign
observers. As French sociologist Amel Daddah has written, slavery in Mauritania
doesn't look like the slavery of American and European textbooks. "The
image--widespread in the West--of 'whites' cruelly subjugating 'blacks' loses its
clarity there," he says. These slaves, who over the generations have come to
share the language, religion, and culture of their Arab masters, are said to view
their enslavement as an inevitable part of the Mauritanian social hierarchy. All
of this has made Mauritanian slavery extremely difficult to fight.

Slavery has technically been abolished three times: first by the French
colonial administration at the turn of the century, then at the time of
independence in 1960, and finally by military communiqué in 1981. But
little has changed. The Mauritanian government insists that the practice is
illegal, yet it continues to offer compensation to slave masters upon the freeing
of slaves. Genuine enforcement of abolition laws, as Daddah has written, would
require acknowledgment of the continuing practice of slavery. And that would
strike at the very foundations of this Islamic republic--for the precepts of
Islam, which strongly discourage the enslavement of other Muslims, are at odds
with Mauritanian tradition.

Thus, Mauritania pursues a deliberately murky path. Many slaves are now
nominally "free" and enjoy the right to vote. But as Bakary Tandia of the CDHRM
explains, "the slavery issue is very subtle. For example, if a man wants to run
for mayor he will approach the slave owner with the most slaves... . Slaves have
become a political power in the hands of their masters. Since they are allowed to
vote, they will vote based on his instructions."

In the words of Moctar Teyeb, a former slave, who spoke not long ago to a
symposium at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, black slaves in
Mauritania continue to be "bought and sold like property and bred like farm
animals." Yet despite such testimony, very little criticism of the Mauritanian
government was heard during the racism conference. And it was not only
Mauritanian officials--worried that a poor human-rights record would jeopardize
offers of debt relief and their recently forged alliance with the United
States--who worked hard to sideline the issue.

The massive amount of attention focused on apologies and reparations for the
transatlantic slave trade led other African nations, and even some NGOs, to
ignore Mauritanian slavery altogether. Acknowledging its existence, in their
view, would have deflected attention from the African case for reparations and
severely weakened it. As Diallo related with disappointment, a number of NGOs
initially signed on to the antislavery cause but then backed off to maintain a
"perceived African front."

"There is some sort of pseudo-solidarity of the third world," he told me.
"It's always much easier to divide things into black and white, oppressor and
oppressed. You don't need to think. You can just say, 'Enslaved and colonized by
the West, so we are victims.' That's why they want to keep this imagined
third-world solidarity. They don't want to discuss intra-third-world and
intra-African conflict."

Frustrated after a day of tireless lobbying, he insisted: "Before we can
talk about reparations and transatlantic slavery as a crime, we have to clean our
houses... . If we accept slavery now in the twenty-first century and we don't do
anything about it and we don't condemn it ... then morally we cannot talk about
other slavery because it means we accept it. If we accept this," he went on,
"then why shouldn't we accept the other slavery? For international opinion to
take us seriously and recognize the crime against humanity of the slave trade,
then we have to start from home."

Eventually, Diallo and his colleagues mustered enough support to get
Mauritanian slavery mentioned explicitly in the NGO Forum's final document. But at
the conference of government delegations, the issue never even reached the floor.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the WCAR by beseeching the
delegates: "Let us admit that all countries have issues of racism and
discrimination to address." Likewise, Justice K. Ramaswamy of the Indian Human
Rights Commission had urged delegates to operate in a "spirit that is genuinely
interested in the furtherance of human rights, and not vitiated by
self-righteousness or by political and other extraneous conditions." But by the
end of the week, it was clear that few nations were willing to heed their calls.
Mauritanian slavery, like Indian caste discrimination and so many other issues,
went unmentioned in the final UN declaration, though a vague statement recognized
and condemned the fact that "slavery and slavery-like practices still exist today
in parts of the world."

Not surprisingly, many NGO delegates and activists left Durban exhausted
and dejected. The diplomacy of denial at the WCAR had triumphed over the cry for
human rights. For India and Mauritania, where protecting oppressed groups
would have compromised their international image, there was no room for
negotiation. But the efforts of some NGOs did create a worldwide audience for a
number of issues that until now have gone largely unnoticed. "As a result of this
conference," noted Smita Narula of Human Rights Watch, "even the
secretary-general of the United Nations has acknowledged the gravity of work- and
descent-based discrimination, and India will have a hard time from now on
avoiding international scrutiny." That may not be the relief from violence and
injustice that NGOs had hoped for, but these issues are now on the table and the
world will have a difficult time ignoring them.