(Note: The following oral presentation was made by Tina Johannesen on March 29, 2001, at the 24th meeting of the 57th session of the UNCHR.)
Presented by: Ms. Tina Johannesen
I speak on behalf of the Asian Legal Resource Centre.
Recently the attorney general of India stated, “It is undeniable that, despite constitutional and legal provisions, caste-based discrimination in our country persists and is pervasive and strong effective measures are needed to stamp out this evil” (Times of India, March 15, 2001, Letters section).
The purpose of this submission is to look at what measures are necessary to stamp out this evil. The admission of the evil nature of caste is not new. Swami Vivekananda, the great Hindu spiritual leader, said, “Unless they [the “Untouchables”] are raised, this motherland of ours will never awake.” Moreover, Mahatma Gandhi condemned caste discrimination as a leprosy. Despite such condemnations, the problem still remains as admitted above by India’s attorney general.
In any form of discrimination, be it slavery or apartheid, the liberation of the victims rests with the opportunities provided to them to participate in their own liberation, i.e., empowerment. The most important aspect of any form of empowerment is freedom of speech by which the victims can describe their experiences. (Imagine, for example, the consequences if people who are confined to scavenging for millenniums gather sufficient confidence to come forward to tell their stories!) Like every other cases of discrimination, silencing the victim is the worst aspect as it deprives the victim of the capacity to escape from their oppression. Deprived of the possibility of real speech, they will remain the wretched of the world as they have been for generations. If the constitutional and legal provisions have failed in India, as the attorney general states, then it is necessary to give those who are oppressed by the caste system the opportunity to speak. Since violence is the means by which silence is imposed, the failure of laws to prevent this violence needs to be examined. The defects of law enforcement must be remedied by a more rigorous supervision of law enforcement personnel by their superior officers, the judiciary and other institutions.
On 25 October last year , 26 Tamil people from a rehabilitation detention centre in Bindunuwewa were brutally massacred in Sri Lanka in the early hours of the morning. Despite an early attempt to portray this as a spontaneous act of a mob, it was later revealed that this was a well-planned act done for some political purpose. The National Human Rights Commission found that about 60 armed police officers who were present at the site of the crime did nothing to prevent the massacre and even shot twice at the detainees. This massacre is clearly a crime against humanity. However, inquiries have been slow, and there is fear that attempts to prosecute the officers will not take place despite demands by U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan. ALRC has constantly alerted the international community that the justice system in Sri Lanka is defective and that people who have committed grave crimes under international law as well as local laws often go unpunished. Under such circumstances, conditions exist which make such actions possible at any time. ALRC urges the Sri Lankan government to treat this issue as a crime against humanity and to prosecute all people involved, including all of the police officers. Another grave crime that remains unresolved is the case of BBC journalist [Mayilvaganam] Nimalarajan who was brutally killed in his home. It has been alleged that this crime has been committed by people close to the ruling party. Failure to investigate and prosecute such cases causes a serious loss of faith in the rule of law.
In Cambodia, the killing of alleged criminals by vigilantes on the streets has become a frequent practice. From June to December 2000, there were 10 such killings around Phnom Penh (see ALRC’s written submission to this session of the commission [E/CN.4/2001/NGO/65]). Pictures in newspapers publishing details of street executions clearly show policemen standing by while people attack and kill others. These incidents are not accidental but are the product of a legal system that has proved itself incapable of dispensing justice objectively and a police force willing to incite violence as a rough substitute for the dispensation of legal justice. When policing and judicial practices fail, street violence becomes a form of trial that delivers an instant remedy to appease the appetites of people made insecure. In Cambodia, none of those engaging in these killings have been arrested or brought to justice, even though the press has published their pictures. Without recourse to legitimate remedies and with the tacit approval of law enforcement agencies, people savagely take revenge.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.