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INDIA: Caste-based discrimination against 'untouchable' Ahirwar in Madhya Pradesh

May 30, 2012

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION – URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-091-2012

30 May 2012
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INDIA: Caste-based discrimination against 'untouchable' Ahirwar in Madhya Pradesh

ISSUES: Inhuman and degrading treatment; caste-based discrimination; violence; police negligence; right to food; child rights
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Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information concerning caste-based discrimination in the implementation of the Mid-Day-Meal scheme in Maregaon Village of Tehsil Gadarwara, Narshingpur, Madhya Pradesh. The monstrous failure of provincial authorities to distribute such welfare to those most in need is believed to be a reaction to a specific decision by the Ahirwar community to abandon the oppressive practice of carrying the carcasses of dead beasts imposed on them by the varna (upper) castes. Instead of actively resisting pervasive stereotypes of caste, the local government itself perpetuates parochial prejudices long rendered unconstitutional and commits acts of discrimination punishable by law.

The deprivation of adequate food, water and employment necessary to a person's health and well-being, to a person's right to life and to his or her inherent dignity is a crime against humanity. The provision of such is a responsibility that falls to the state. We urge you to write in to appeal to the relevant authorities to take actions against the officers responsible for these crimes against Ahirwar community and to restore to these victims their rights and access to water, food and employment. In so doing, we hope to not only assist these victims but countless others by stirring up compassion and a sense of duty in the central government. In so doing, we urge the government to strengthen rule of law throughout the land, which will win them the hearts of their people and bring about a lasting peace.

CASE NARRATIVE:

Yuva Samvad, Nagrik Adhikar Manch and National Secular Forum conducted an investigation on 2 May 2012 in Maregaon Village of Gadarwara Tehsil of Narsinghpur district and uncovered the following details:

AHRC-UAC-091-2012-01.pngMaregoan Village has a population of approximately 2000 individuals. Out of these, 100 families are of the Ahirwar community. Dalits make up most of the agricultural labourers in this area, where Ahirwars (Chamars) compose a majority of the Dalits. The Ahirwar are classified as a Scheduled Caste in India. Ahirwar are spread across Gadarwara and in nearly all adjoining villages, playing an important role in the socioeconomic activities of the region. The Lodhi community in Maregaon village belong to what is termed in India as the 'Other Backward Class' (OBC). They own farmland and generally hire Ahirwar to cultivate their fields.

Division of labour in the community has resulted in the imposition of certain menial and lowly occupations upon the Ahirwar. For centuries, the Ahirwar have been tasked to do "dirty" jobs such as carrying the carcasses of animals. Despite the necessity of such workers, and for forcing them to take up such jobs, the Ahirwar are seen as being polluted by death and greatly despised. The Ahirwar are made to live in a hamlet separated from the main village.

AHRC-UAC-091-2012-02.pngIn 2009, the Ahirwar Samaj Mahaparishad built a consensus among the Ahirwar community to abandon the practice of carrying the carcasses of animals and shake off the label of "untouchable" imposed by the dominant castes. This decision was first acted upon by three or four individuals and was soon claimed by other Ahirwar. In response, individuals from dominant castes began a social and economic boycott against the Ahirwar. The Ahirwar were not permitted to pass through the village and were forced to take a longer route in order to travel to other villages. The Ahirwar were prohibited from taking rations from the local shopkeeper; even the local milk vendor was intimidated by the Lodhi into not selling milk to the Ahirwar. The Ahirwar were even more cruelly persecuted through the denial of water from the hand pump located near the village temple. Prior to their decision to abandon the practice of carrying animal carcasses, the Ahirwar were still permitted to use this hand pump because there had been two at the time and the villagers were not facing a shortage of water. Today, the Lodhi have fenced in and put wire around the temple and areas surrounding it – this includes the hand pump the Ahirwar depended on for their water. In addition to such mistreatment and deprivation, the Ahirwar were further prohibited from using water from a communal water tank. This tank was also fenced in with wire by the Lodhi. The Ahirwar's cattle were also not permitted to partake of water from the tank. The Ahirwar face a severe shortage of water at this present time.

Children of the oppressed castes are forced to clean the school while children from dominant castes are not. The school also discriminates through seating arrangements in class. To exacerbate the situation, the cook engaged in preparing the Mid-Day-Meal in Maregaon Village is a Lodhi. Despite efforts by authorities to relieve malnutrition in the area by implementing a Mid-Day-Meal scheme, the Ahirwar children who most require the sustenance are discriminated against. They are served only leftovers, if there are any, and the food is given to them from a distance. The Ahirwar children are also forced to bring their own plates while other students from the dominant castes are served from plates provided by the school. The children from the Ahirwar community are also fed insufficient amounts of food and punished for asking for more. Instead of the social, economic and intellectual progress that might be expected in the world's largest democracy, Madhya Pradesh looks increasingly like Dickensian London. "Please, sir, I want some more" – will the authorities intervene, or participate in the silencing of such cries for help by refusing to?

AHRC-UAC-091-2012-03.pngFinally, the report exposes shockingly poor implementation of the Apex Court's orders concerning the Government Food, Employment and Welfare Schemes to prevent hunger and malnutrition among the people of Maregaon Village. Central to this failure has been the wrong identification of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Of the more than 100 Ahirwar families who conduct manual labour for a living, only 20-25 families have been issues the PBL card. Many live in terrible conditions and should also be included on the BPL list but have not been. Most Ahirwar are deprived of the benefits of the government scheme that targets BPL families. The Ahirwar have job cards but only two to three individuals have found employment under the NREGA scheme while the rest languish, unemployed and "unemployable" due to their caste affiliation. So far local officials have not acted to discipline such blatant acts of discrimination and assure the Ahirwar of protection against future abuses.

Although plans and efforts by the government to alleviate hunger and malnutrition are commendable, the government should also pursue the goal of correct implementation of such schemes. To foolproof the programme would be the only responsible thing to do, especially in light of the recent reports made against abuses in the system. While the government may not actively discriminate against the Ahirwar, to passively watch other actors do so – to refuse to act – is a betrayal of a common humanity; it means to be complicit in such acts of violence and inhuman, degrading treatment. This is unforgiveable for an administration powerful enough to carry out punitive actions against perpetrators and practically assist this neglected and long-oppressed segment of society.

Entire paradigms must be radically altered for real and sustainable change. Human beings have to recognise above all things the equality and inherent dignity of fellow human. Only by acknowledging a common humanity can we hope to evade the violence that proceeds from other exclusive and necessarily reductive identities (religious, ethnic, linguistic, gender, national, political affiliations). The residents of Maregaon Village can begin to mend the rifts in their commmunity's social fabric by permitting the Ahirwar occupations of their own choosing, by paying the Ahirwar for services rendered and by learning to dissociate the derogatory label of "untouchable" from menial but freely chosen jobs. Such critical re-evaluation of their beliefs would not only restore the dignity of the Ahirwar but serve the dominant class by freeing them to participate in free market systems, to have healthy and peaceable relationships with their neighbours. As with all social reform, this will take effort and time. Yet the state bears a more immediate obligation to its people, to the Ahirwar. The state must release the Ahirwar from their servitude, inhuman and degrading treatment, poor standards of living and oppression at the hands of the Lodhi. Without urgent intervention, the Ahirwar and their children face continued caste-based discrimination and an uncertain future.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Rights are not merely privileges; they are entitlements. And the Ahirwar have been robbed of these entitlements.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) laid out some guidelines concerning the protection of the protection of individuals' fundamental rights. By virtue of being human, the Ahirwar are, "without distinction", fully entitled to enjoy such rights and liberties as set forth in the Declaration, and the Indian state is expected to bear the responsibility of providing access to and protection of such rights (Article 2). Relevant to this case of discrimination are Articles 3, 4, 5, 23 and 25, which collectively assert that every human has a right to life, liberty and security of person, work, free choice of employment, just and favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal work, just remuneration for an existence worthy of human dignity, a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, housing, medical care, social services and security in the event of unemployment or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Children are entitled to special care and assistance. The Ahirwar also have rights against servitude and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India ratified in 1979, reiterate such rights in Articles 6 (right to life, protected by law), 7 (right against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment), 8 (right against servitude and forced or compulsory labour), 24 (right of the child to protection without discrimination), 26 (all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination to the equal protection of the law). The Indian state is bound by international law to upholding these rights.

India's own Constitution, that came into effect in 1950, declaims discrimination on grounds of religion, race, sex, place of birth and caste. Article 15(2) (a) and (b) state that no citizen shall be denied access to the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and public places dedicated to the use of the general public. Article 15(3) and (4) go further still to endorse affirmative action and promote special provisions for the most vulnerable sectors of Indian society: women, children, members of socially and educationally backward classes of citizens, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes. Article 16 stipulates "equality of opportunity in matters of public employment" and also permits positive discrimination to increase the participation and representation of the same vulnerable groups of individuals in the civil service but also prohibiting discrimination on the grounds already mentioned. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution crucially abolishes "untouchability", a most extreme form of discrimination wherein the lowest caste in society is deemed "unclean", shunned and ostracised. Article 17 is not only stating an ideal to be worked towards – it categorically and permanently criminalises such a practice. Yet this label continues to blight the lives of hundreds of thousands in India, and persist as reality for the Ahirwar in Madhya Pradesh. It is an impossible and soul-destroying reality that disgraces India. It is a reality that can and should be fought by the government's every last ounce of strength and willpower.

Legislations such as the Untouchability (Offences) Act 1955, the the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 provide the enforcement architecture to constitutional guarantees against caste-based discrimination and other entrenched practices concerning untouchability. However the enforcement of these legislations is a far cry of what it ought to be. Several other factors adversely affect the implementation of affirmative penal laws intended to prevent discrimination; a corrupt and inept policing system, caste-prejudices of police officers, prosecutors and judges further inhibit the enactment of these legislations. Thus the deterrance effect of penal laws like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 is diminished and caste-based atrocities continue in India. The case at hand is one such example.

SUGGESTED ACTION:
Please write to the authorities mentioned below demanding a thorough investigation into this case. The suffering of the Ahirwar must be ameliorated and vindicated. The first step may be achieved by officials simply ensuring the proper implementation of existing welfare schemes providing food and employment. The police who wield jurisdiction over the area should exercise their authority and see to the removal of the fences and wires that separate the Ahirwar and their cattle from life-sustaining water. Families living in squalid conditions and obviously below the poverty line should be given their ration cards at the earliest possible moment. Officials should send inspectors at regular intervals to monitor the discrimination faced by Ahirwar children in schools and during mid-day meals. The Ahirwar should also be interviewed to see how many are currently being coerced into taking up certain jobs or who are not being fairly paid. A long-term educational/publicity effort can also be made to introduce the basic concepts of human and constitutional rights to Maregaon Village. This will allow the Ahirwar to be more assertive in demanding their rights and gradually facilitate a realisation by members of the dominant caste that common humanity should inspire compassion and respect for others, regardless of their gender, occupation and political, religious, linguistic, caste or ethnic affiliations. This will also have the effort of highlighting the government's resolve to uphold rule of law in India. The international community will also be assured of India's commitment to international treaties and obligations.

The AHRC is also writing separate letters to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and the Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child calling for further intervention in this case.

To support this appeal, please click here:

SAMPLE LETTER:

Dear __________,

INDIA: Please investigate the discrimination against 'untouchable' Ahirwar in Madhya Pradesh despite Mid-Day-Meal and other welfare schemes by the government

Name of victims: Ahirwar community in Maregaon Village of Gadarwara Tehsil of Narsinghpur district, Madhya Pradesh
Alleged perpetrators: Lodhi community in Maregaon Village of Gadarwara Tehsil of Narsinghpur district, Madhya Pradesh
Date of incident: 2009 to present (since the consensus by Ahirwar Samaj Mahaparishad to abandon the practice of carrying the carcasses of dead animals)
Place of incident: Maregaon Village of Gadarwara Tehsil of Narsinghpur district, Madhya Pradesh

I am writing to express concern regarding caste-based discrimination and the denial of the right to food to the Ahirwar community of Maregaon Village, Gadarwara Tehsil of Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh by the Lodhi community residing in the same village despite attempts by the government to fight hunger and malnutrition in the region through welfare initiatives that would secure employment and food for the most marginalised segments of society.

Yuva Samvad, Nagrik Adhikar Manch and National Secular Forum conducted an investigation on 2 May 2012 in Maregaon Village of Gadarwara Tehsil of Narsinghpur district and uncovered the following details:

Maregoan Village has a population of approximately 2000 individuals. Out of these, 100 families are of the Ahirwar community. Dalits make up most of the agricultural labourers in this area, where Ahirwars (Chamars) compose a majority of the Dalits. The Ahirwar are classified as a Scheduled Caste in India. Ahirwar are spread across Gadarwara and in nearly all adjoining villages, playing an important role in the socioeconomic activities of the region. The Lodhi community in Maregaon village belong to Other Backward Classe (OBC) own farmland and generally hire Ahirwar to cultivate their fields.

Division of labour in the community has resulted in the imposition of certain menial and lowly occupations upon the Ahirwar. For centuries, the Ahirwar have been tasked to do "dirty" jobs such as carrying the carcasses of dead animals. Despite the necessity of such workers, and for forcing them to take up such jobs, the Ahirwar are seen as being tainted by death and greatly despised. The Ahirwar were made to live in a hamlet separated from the main village.

In 2009, the Ahirwar Samaj Mahaparishad built a consensus among the Ahirwar community to abandon the practice of carrying the carcasses dead animals and shake off the label of "untouchable" imposed by the dominant castes. This decision was first acted upon by three or four individuals and was soon claimed by other Ahirwar. In response, individuals from higher castes began a social and economic boycott against the Ahirwar. The Ahirwar were not permitted to pass through the village and were forced to take a longer route in order to travel to other villages. The Ahirwar were prohibited from taking rations from the local shopkeeper; even the local milk vendor was intimidated by the Lodhi into not selling milk to the Ahirwar. The Ahirwar were even more cruelly persecuted through the denial of water from the hand pump located near the village temple. Prior to their decision to abandon the practice of carrying the carcasses of dead animals, the Ahirwar were still permitted to use this hand pump because there had been two at the time and the villagers were not facing a shortage of water. Today, the Lodhi have fenced in and put wire around the temple and areas surrounding it – this includes the hand pump the Ahirwar depended on for their water. In addition to such mistreatment and deprivation, the Ahirwar were further prohibited from using water from a communal water tank. This tank was also fenced in with wire by the Lodhi. The Ahirwar's cattle were also not permitted to partake of water from the tank. The Ahirwar face a severe shortage of water at this present time.

Children of the lower castes are forced to clean the school while children from higher castes are not. The school also discriminates through seating arrangements in class. To exacerbate the situation, the cook engaged in cooking the Mid-Day-Meal in Maregaon Village is a Lodhi. Despite efforts by authorities to relieve malnutrition in the area by implementing a Mid-Day-Meal scheme, the Ahirwar children who most require the sustenance are discriminated against. They are served only leftovers, if there are any, and the food is given to them from a distance. The Ahirwar children are also forced to bring their own plates while other students from the dominant castes are served from plates provided by the school. The children from the Ahirwar community are also fed insufficient amounts of food and punished for asking for more. Instead of the social, economic and intellectual progress that might be expected in the world's largest democracy, Madhya Pradesh looks increasingly like Dickensian London. "Please, sir, I want some more" – will the authorities intervene before the Ahirwar children's cries die out, or will it participate in the silencing of such cries for help by refusing to?

Finally, the report exposes shockingly poor implementation of the Apex Court's orders concerning the Government Food, Employment and Welfare Schemes to prevent hunger and malnutrition among the people of Maregaon Village. Central to this failure has been the wrong identification of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Of the more than 100 Ahirwar families who conduct manual labour for a living, only 20-25 families have been issues the PBL card. Many live in terrible conditions and should also be included on the BPL list but have not been. Most Ahirwar are deprived of the benefits of the government scheme that targets BPL families. The Ahirwar have job cards but only two to three individuals have found employment under the NREGA scheme while the rest languish, unemployed and "unemployable" due to their caste affiliation. So far local officials have not acted to discipline such blatant acts of discrimination and assure the Ahirwar of protection against future abuses.

Although plans and efforts by the government to alleviate hunger and malnutrition are commendable, the government should also pursue the goal of correct implementation of such schemes. To foolproof the programme would be the only responsible thing to do, especially in light of the recent reports made against abuses in the system. While the government may not actively discriminate against the Ahirwar, to passively watch other actors do so – to refuse to act – is a betrayal of a common humanity; it means to be complicit in such acts of violence and inhuman, degrading treatment. This is unforgiveable for an administration powerful enough to carry out punitive actions against perpetrators and practically assist this neglected and long-oppressed segment of society.

Rights are not merely privileges; they are entitlements. And the Ahirwar have been robbed of these entitlements. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) laid out some guidelines concerning the protection of the protection of individuals' fundamental rights. By virtue of being human, the Ahirwar are, "without distinction", fully entitled to enjoy such rights and liberties as set forth in the Declaration, and the Indian state is expected to bear the responsibility of providing access to and protection of such rights (Article 2). Relevant to this case of discrimination are Articles 3, 4, 5, 23 and 25, which collectively assert that every human has a right to life, liberty and security of person, work, free choice of employment, just and favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal work, just remuneration for an existence worthy of human dignity, a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, housing, medical care, social services and security in the event of unemployment or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Children are entitled to special care and assistance. The Ahirwar also have rights against servitude and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India ratified in 1979, reiterate such rights in Articles 6 (right to life, protected by law), 7 (right against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment), 8 (right against servitude and forced or compulsory labour), 24 (right of the child to protection without discrimination), 26 (all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination to the equal protection of the law). The Indian state is bound by international law to upholding these rights.

India's own Constitution declaims discrimination on grounds of religion, race, sex, place of birth and caste. Article 15(2) (a) and (b) state that no citizen shall be denied access to the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and public places dedicated to the use of the general public. Article 15(3) and (4) go further still to endorse affirmative action and promote special provisions for the most vulnerable sectors of Indian society: women, children, members of socially and educationally backward classes of citizens, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes. Article 16 stipulates "equality of opportunity in matters of public employment" and also permits positive discrimination to increase the participation and representation of the same vulnerable groups of individuals in the civil service but also prohibiting discrimination on the grounds already mentioned. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution crucially abolishes "untouchability", a most extreme form of discrimination wherein the lowest caste in society is deemed "unclean", shunned and ostracised. Article 17 is not only stating an ideal to be worked towards – it categorically and permanently criminalises such a practice. Yet this label continues to blight the lives of hundreds of thousands in India, and persist as reality for the Ahirwar in Madhya Pradesh. It is an impossible and soul-destroying reality that disgraces India. It is a reality that can and should be fought by the government's every last ounce of strength and willpower.

Entire paradigms must be radically altered for real and sustainable change. Man has to recognise above all things the equality and inherent dignity of fellow Man. Only by acknowledging a common humanity can we hope to evade the violence that proceeds from other exclusive and necessarily reductive identities (religious, ethnic, linguistic, gender, national, political affiliations). The residents of Maregaon Village can begin to mend the rifts in their commmunity's social fabric by permitting the Ahirwar occupations of their own choosing, by paying the Ahirwar for services rendered and by learning to dissociate the derogatory label of "untouchable" from menial but freely chosen jobs. Such critical re-evaluation of their beliefs would not only restore the dignity of the Ahirwar but serve the dominant class by freeing them to participate in free market systems, to have healthy and peaceable relationships with their neighbours. As with all social reform, this will take effort and time. Yet the state bears a more immediate obligation to its people, to the Ahirwar. The state must release the Ahirwar from their servitude, inhuman and degrading treatment, poor standards of living and oppression at the hands of the Lodhi. Without urgent intervention, the Ahirwar and their children face continued caste-based discrimination and an uncertain future.

The suffering of the Ahirwar must be quickly addressed. I therefore demand that:

1. Proper implementation of existing welfare schemes providing food and employment is ensured by officials through close monitoring of such activities at the level of the village;
2. Officials should send inspectors at regular intervals to monitor the discrimination faced by Ahirwar children in schools and during mid-day meals;
3. The Ahirwar should also be interviewed to determine how many are currently being coerced into taking up certain jobs or who are not being (fairly) paid;
4. The police who wield jurisdiction over the area exercise their authority and see to the removal of the fences and wires that separate the Ahirwar and their cattle from life-sustaining water;
5. Families living in squalid conditions and obviously below the poverty line be given their ration cards at the earliest possible moment;
6. The persons responsible for intimidating the milk and provision shop vendors, for erecting the fences and wires around the water pumps and tanks are immediately investigated, arrested and punished;
7. Adequate protection is provided for the Ahirwar against possible retaliatory attacks or boycotts from members of the dominant castes in the village and adequate fiscal compensation, food and water is provided that will enable the Ahirwar to regain their health and be able to resume work.
8. The Gadarwara district administration should ensure social boycotts of the Ahirwar are not repeated in the future through the introduction of long-term educational/publicity efforts to communicate the basic concepts of human and constitutional rights to residents of Maregaon Village and other areas around India where such caste-based discrimination is prevalent, as well as by carrying out punitive legal action against individuals who persist in their discrimination against the Ahirwar;
9. The Gadarwara district administration should arrange to have dead animals picked up and disposed of from rural areas since the Ahirwar have identified the activity as one of the main reasons for the discrimination against them and have voluntarily decided against continuing to do the job

If the authorities act on the recommendations above, Indian society may come to realise that common humanity should inspire compassion and respect for others, regardless of their gender, occupation and political, religious, linguistic, caste or ethnic affiliations. This will pave the way for cooperation and a lasting peace, which will in turn create an environment conducive to national progress. This will also have the effort of highlighting the government's resolve to uphold rule of law in India, increasing its legitimacy amongst the Indian people, and signal to the international community India's continued commitment to international treaties and obligations.

Yours sincerely,

--------------------------------------------------
PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO:

1. Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan
Chief Minister
Government of Madhya Pradesh
Through the Office of the Chief Secretary Mr. R. Parasuram
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
INDIA
Fax: + 91 755 2441751
Email: cs@mp.nic.in

2. Mr. Karan Singh Verma
Minister of Revenue and Rehabilitation
Government of Madhya Pradesh
Through the Office of the Principal Secretary - Revenue
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
INDIA
Fax: + 91 755 2674923

3. Mr. Mr. Sanjeev Singh (IAS)
District Magistrate
Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh State
INDIA

4. Mr. Jairam Ramesh
Union Minsiter for Rural Development
Government of India
Krishi Bhavan, Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road
New Delhi - 110001
INDIA
Fax: + 91 11 23385876
Email: vineelkrishna@gmail.com / varad.pande@nic.in

5. Chairperson
National Human Rights Commission
Faridkot House, Copernicus Marg
New Delhi 110001
INDIA
Fax: + 91 11 2338 4863
E-mail: chairnhrc@nic.in


Thank you

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrc.asia)

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AHRC-UAC-091-2012
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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.