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Jeremy Corbyn: It is hard to see how one could believe that a country should be on the Security Council permanently to defend human rights around the world if it was clearly doing nothing like enough to address caste discrimination in its own society. My hon. Friend makes a strong point.

As my hon. Friend and others have said, the problem exists not only in India. If I may crave your indulgence for one second, Mr. Conway, I should like to mention the related issue of Dalit discrimination in Nepal. Last year, in this very Room, I hosted a representation by Dalit women from Nepal and colleagues from India about Dalit discrimination. For those women, who had been abused and forced to work as prostitutes, and whose lives had been destroyed by the very fact of their place of birth as Dalit people, it was an incredible achievement simply to be able to present their case in this hall in the Palace of Westminster.

We owe it to those brave women, who have stood up against caste discrimination, and to many others to do our best to do two things. First, we must ensure that the Government do all that they can to support measures to eliminate caste discrimination. Secondly, we must get the message across to the Government and lawmakers in India and other places.

The Hague declaration on the human rights and dignity of Dalit women was made in November last year. It pointed out the vast numbers of people involved, and made a series of demands, including identifying the millennium development goals with the cause of Dalit women, and placing the focus of international development on the elimination of caste discrimination. It made recommendations to the international community, the United Nations and the European Union. Recalling that India, like many other countries, is a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights, it called for a reduction, as quickly as possible, in the large gap in living standards between Dalits and other people, particularly women and girls. It called on the

and on the

It continues by calling on the Human Rights Council to address the issue; perhaps the Minister will be able to help with regard to the UK Government’s doing all that they can to ensure that that happens.

In parenthesis, one of the problems with the UN Human Rights Council, as with several UN agencies, is that too often we hide behind a bland Euro-formula, in which the European Union speaks for all 25 member states, but the reality is that there is hardly any verve in the contribution, for fear of offending any one of the 25. I wonder whether it might be an idea to opt out on this occasion, and say something a little stronger, if that is possible.

The International Labour Organisation’s annual report on fundamental labour rights specifies adherence to the policy of no child or forced labour, non-discrimination
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in employment, and the right to association and collective bargaining, but for Dalit people in India the idea of being active in a trade union and ensuring that their employment rights are complied with and wage demands met is a difficult one. I hope that, again, our representatives at the ILO will ensure that those demands are met.

In 2002, the UN Committee on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination drew substantial attention to the issue of caste discrimination, and suggested that the state parties should take several courses of action, including to

That is a requirement on all member states, including Britain, not just India. Secondly, it suggested that they should

It is very unclear what part of British law would apply if it could be argued that descent-based discrimination was happening in this country. I say that without hostility towards the Government; however, issues of discrimination against Dalit people do arise in this country. As well as calling on the state parties to

the committee demands a comprehensive national strategy to carry out the actions identified.

To conclude, discrimination against Dalit people in India is an outrage of the first order and must be dealt with, so pressure must be put on the Indian Government. Following the raising of this question with the Department for International Development it has been made clear to us that there is no discrimination on the basis of caste or descent associated with any British aid going to India. I am very pleased about that and ask for as much aid as possible to be directed particularly towards education in Dalit communities. It seems that discrimination is strong throughout, but particularly in education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West helpfully quoted the Ambedkar principles. The Dalit Solidarity Network has done a great deal of work in promoting them and hosted a conference last year on private sector involvement with them and the attempt to encourage foreign investors in India, who are now quite substantial, and substantially involved in employment, to adhere to the principles. That initiative is supported by the Amicus trade union, Lloyds TSB and others. It will be helpful if the Government also give full support to that approach.

We all today applaud the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago, and at this very moment Kofi Annan is about to speak on that subject. It was an incredible achievement, although unfortunately slavery went on for several decades after that. However, we must ask hard questions. When a Dalit child is making carpets or bricks, or working in whatever other horrible occupation they are forced into, denied education, health care and childhood, is not that slavery in another form? We should not be too self-congratulatory. We have a long way to go to ensure that the UN declaration of human rights of 1948 means something to the people for whom it was intended to
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mean something—those at the bottom of the pile, suffering centuries of discrimination and the horrors that go with it. We must do all that we can.

12.6 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to you for presiding this morning, Mr. Conway, and grateful to see the Minister for Europe here this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on his comprehensive, mature and knowledgeable introduction to the debate. Although it is not particularly well attended this morning—and we particularly mourn the absence of any Liberal Democrat representation—the subject is an important one. The fact that it has been raised again in this Parliament shows that the issue is increasingly recognised on the international stage and that the Indian Government will increasingly have to act to deal with the dreadful problem that hon. Members have described.

There is not much time and I want to give the Minister plenty of time to reply so I shall make my remarks brief. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire chaired the Conservative Human Rights Commission earlier this year, as he mentioned in his speech, and, to show what I think should be the tone of the whole debate, I shall quote his public statement:

He is right: a true friendship involves telling one’s friend when they have got it wrong, and the Indian Government do need to take action over those serious problems.

India is, nevertheless, one of the world’s largest democracies. It is reckoned, by Freedom House, to be in the free category. It allows public assembly and has a relatively impartial judiciary, particularly at senior levels, and, above all, it has a relatively free press. Without that free press it would not be possible to report some of the atrocities happening to Dalits, such as the Khairlanji incident that he referred to. I think that that free press will eventually bring about change in the system for Dalits.

I was a little concerned about the remarks of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). Violence is never the way to bring about change. Change should be brought about by peaceful means and campaigning, and people in a democracy and those who believe in democracy should respect that.

The plight of Dalits continues to be a serious concern. Amnesty International has termed India’s caste system the hidden apartheid, as many hon. Members have mentioned this morning. The Indian caste system has historically prevented the Dalits, or untouchables, as they are called, from doing any but the most menial jobs. Today’s speeches have highlighted the very real sense of discrimination against Dalits that still exists, particularly in rural areas. Dalits continue to face socio-economic discrimination, abuse and sometimes torture and indeed death, simply because of their family descent.
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As I said in an intervention, those people are born into the system and discriminated against from the very time that they are born. That is quite unacceptable.

It is estimated that the system affects up to a fifth of the population in India—so up to 200 million people. Most of those affected are based in India, but not all of them, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who met Dalit representatives in Nepal—as, indeed, did I when I went there last year.

The United States Department of State 2006 human rights report notes that:

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs heard testimony that

Amnesty International estimates that at least two thirds of bonded labourers in India are Dalits. It says that redress is limited, and that

under the law. Amnesty claims that as well as facing problems in seeking redress for abuses from other castes in their communities, Dalits may have problems accessing the criminal justice system.

As I said earlier, in an intervention on my hon. Friend, there is a problem with the anti-conversion laws. Dalits who seek emancipation by converting to a religion that does not have a caste system face tough punishments. As Christian Solidarity Worldwide states in its 2006 annual report:

Article 17 of the Indian constitution states that the practice of untouchability is abolished and forbidden, and the Indian Government introduced the Protection of Civil Rights Act as early as 1955. That Act was followed in 1989 by the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and in 1995 by harsher penalties for breaching the law, but the abuses still continue.

There is good transatlantic support for ending this discrimination, and that is hardly surprising given India’s position as the United States’ largest trading partner and key regional ally. On 3 May, Republican Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona introduced a concurrent resolution

If India wishes to become one of the world’s foremost international powers, it must address the dreadful stain on its character of Dalit discrimination. Our Government have made positive statements about India’s application to become a permanent member of the Security Council. I agree with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that if it really aspires to that position, it must do something about this dreadful problem.

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I end by asking the Minister to reply to one or two short questions. What representations have the Government made to the Indian Government on this matter? What Department for International Development projects are targeted specifically at eliminating Dalit discrimination in India? What action has the Minister taken to bring this issue to the attention of British companies that trade with India? We have heard about some of the more enlightened, large companies that trade with India which adopt better practice, but many do not. Finally, what action are the Government taking to raise this matter in international forums? The Minister for Trade places great store in the new Human Rights Council. Will the Government strongly pursue this issue at that council, so that together, on an international basis, we can put more pressure on the Indian Government to do something about one of the greatest human rights abuses that remains in the world today?

12.14 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Human rights remains at the core of the agenda of the Department of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and we should seek to expose and end all abuses of human rights, wherever they are committed. The debate is both timely and relevant, and I thank the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) for securing it. I also congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate: they gave a series of extremely good speeches and I shall do my best to maintain the standard that they have set.

A caste system is one in which an individual’s occupation and marriage prospects are determined by his or her birth. Such discrimination perpetuates social exclusion and keeps large numbers of people in poverty. India has what is, perhaps, the best-known example of a caste system, in which up to 250 million Dalit and tribal communities traditionally form the lowest layer of Indian society. There is a debate as to whether any caste system is, de facto, automatically, an abuse of human rights, but I shall not enter into that debate today. Some argue, on the contrary, that the caste system can provide a sense of community. Speaking entirely personally, I must say that I have difficulty in accepting that argument.

I hope that we in this House and the people of India and the wider international community can all agree that we oppose all forms of discrimination, whether on the grounds of race, religion or of descent—as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has labelled caste-based discrimination. On that note, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised a very interesting point about the position in UK law regarding discrimination based on descent, to which I shall give further thought.

As we have heard, the Dalits in India suffer multiple forms of discrimination including racism, social exclusion and poverty. For centuries, they have been segregated from mainstream society and their employment options have been limited. Shortly after independence, the Indian Government made efforts to redress that age-old discrimination. The Dalits are no longer known as the untouchable caste. The concept of untouchability was abolished in 1950 in the Indian constitution, which also prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

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Also in 1950, the Indian Government introduced a series of practical measures, through the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, to reverse the Dalits’ historical position. As scheduled castes, Dalits have quotas of reserved places in the central and state governments and in employment and educational establishments. They also have preferential access to low-income housing and agricultural land. Dalits have produced remarkable men and women throughout Indian history, and it is worth noting that since independence both an Indian President and Chief Justice have been Dalits.

The positive discrimination in India is not without its critics, but that must be set against the fact that discrimination against Dalits remains endemic throughout the sub-continent. Whilst we welcome the legislation that is in place and the initiatives that the Government of India have to address caste-related issues, we remain concerned about reports of continuing discrimination against Dalits. One example that has been highlighted today is the Kharirianji massacre, and our high commission continues to monitor that case closely.

There are further practical problems with the practice of bonded labour. The word “dalit” does not mean untouchable, it means downtrodden, and the majority of bonded workers are Dalits. They are not the only victims of that contemporary form of slavery. Bonded labour was legally outlawed in India in 1976, but it is still widespread. However, the Indian Government are taking steps to tackle the problem. They have established regional vigilance committees, they provide grants to rehabilitate bonded labourers and last year they banned the use of child labour for domestic help.

As India moves towards becoming a global player, it is even more important that it continues to focus on its international obligations. It has signed and ratified all six of the core UN human rights treaties except the convention against torture, which it has signed but not ratified. Its election to the UN Human Rights Council last year was a clear indication of the importance that it places on human rights. We welcome its active role on the council and are keen to maintain an active dialogue with it on human rights issues both within and outside India.

India has ratified the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and we therefore trust that it will take on board the committee’s recommendations that discrimination based on descent should form part of its reporting obligations. Throughout the EU, there is regular dialogue with Indian officials on human rights. The issue of minorities was discussed at the last EU-India human rights dialogue in December 2006, at which both sides agreed to continue discussions on this issue. In March, a seminar was held in Delhi that focused on the discrimination against minority groups in both the EU and India.

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