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UN report highlights caste-based discrimination in SL

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Shiran Illanperuma 

reporting from Geneva

Caste-based discrimination is an ongoing issue in Sri Lankan society, according to a report presented during the 31st session of the Human Rights Council.

The report by the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Rita Izsak-Ndiaye specifically mentions Sri Lanka in two paragraphs, which describe varying caste structures in Sinhala, Tamil and Up-Country Tamil communities and the types of social exclusion lower castes in each group face.

The report notes that despite differences in caste structure between ethnic groups, a commonality of experience exists between lower castes of all ethnic groups including“the avoidance of inter-caste marriage and the link between lower castes and greater levels of poverty”. In an official address at the Human Rights Council Izsak-Ndiaye said that she decided to base this year’s report on caste following information she received regarding“incidents of discrimination in caste-based and analogous systems of inherited status”.

A scathing response by the Sri Lankan Government bashed the report claiming factual inaccuracies while stating that the term Dalit has“no relevance whatsoever in the context of Sri Lanka”.

“It is completely incorrect to state that people in Sri Lanka are under pressure to follow caste-based employment. Untouchability, as stated in the report, is not a feature one would find in Sri Lankan society at all,” charged the official response.

India also reacted negatively to the report, accusing Izsak-Ndiaye for acting in breach of the mandate of her position as Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues, which does not specifically mention lower castes as a minority.

Izsak-Ndiaye however argued that lower castes exhibit “minority-like characteristics” and have “historically used the minority rights framework to claim their rights”.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan anti-caste activist and University of Peradeniya Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva told the Daily FT that neither the UN report nor the response by the Sri Lankan Government was reflective of the situation on the ground.

Noting the contention between the report and the Sri Lankan Government, Silva mediated: “In the contested two paragraphs in the UN report, caste is correctly identified as a continuing social problem in Sri Lanka as have also been reported by a number of researchers working on caste here. However, the use of the term Dalit which is typically used to identify the social outcastes in India is not used in Sri Lanka.”

“The continuing caste problems in Sri Lanka relate to dignity, social exclusion and continued social recognition of hereditary social distinctions rather than due to any explicit coercion from above to carry out hereditary caste occupations as stated in the relevant paragraphs in the UN report,” explained Silva.

Silva proceeded to critique the Sri Lankan Government’s evasion of the issues raised by the report saying, “The official denial of caste is perhaps not the best policy for addressing this chronic problem in our society.”

Special Rapporteur Izsak-Ndiaye is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on invitation by the Government sometime in September. The Sri Lankan Government has said that it looked forward to clearing what it perceives as misconceptions in the report while also seeking expert advice on outstanding issues relating to minorities in the island.

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