A Politics of Denial: Are the World's Fledgling NGOs a Match for Its Repressive Governments?

Article excerpt

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 firstworld 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. …