Director of Advocacy,
International Humanists and Ethical Union,
(Excerpts from the Valedictory speech of Elizabth O’Casey in World Atheist Conference 2018 held at Tiruchirapalli on 7th January 2018)
I want to tell you a little bit about our work at the UNHRC in Geneva, since it has been mainly there that for many years that we have been highlighting atheist, humanist and rationalist concerns in India and where we can do more together in the future.
Our work at the United Nations Human Rights Council often focuses on highlighting where harmful, traditional, religious and cultural practices are used to undermine human rights. For example: honour-based violence, blasphemy laws, FGM, denial of reproductive rights, forced /early marriage, caste-based discrimination and violence, and witchcraft accusations against children.
These practices, which often come in the form of legally-sanctioned discrimination and abuse, are most often defended and rooted in arguments of tradition, culture or religion. They turn upon spurious claims of cultural autonomy immune from critique and intervention.
We are also particularly keen to highlight the infringements of the rights of non-believers and the persecution of apostates. Part of this involves awareness-raising and encouraging an attitudinal reform and change in discourse when in comes to the non-religious.
And it is within this arena of advocacy you all come in. As well as leading the debate, we aim to be voice of members and represent them.
Overview of diverse issues we have raised in the past on India –
Caste: India has continued to witness innumerable attacks on Dalits and members of its other minorities. Untouchables are systematically attacked for reasons varying from entering places of worship to skinning dead cows. For many years we have been calling on India (in statements and submissions) to eradicate the caste system and have sought to highlight the plight of its millions of victims and get others to raise it too. More human rights groups at the UN are starting to do so and there has been recent progress in that India has accepted UN recommendations concerning the discrimination of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and those calling for a full and consistent enforcement of the law.
However, the issue of manual scavenging is still poorly covered at the international level. In 100 days, 39 people from untouchable Dalit community were killed whilst cleaning sewer lines. We have urged the government to effectively implement the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, and will continue to do so.
India’s secular Constitution has been increasingly challenged by a rise in Hindu nationalism, and this has been an increasing focus of concern for us. As we all know, several rationalist activists have been killed by extremists, whilst government officials refrained from forcefully condemning the killings. Instead, politicians of the BJP party have voiced derogatory remarks about minorities. We have made statements and spoken with Indian diplomats about this. Those promoting truth and light and progress must be cherished and protected rather than being vulnerable at the hands of senseless extremists; and I think we can see a clear responsibility for a government here that is helping whip up and foster Hindu and nationalist extremism.
We have of course specifically mentioned and dedicated our words and statements to murdered Indian rationalists. In the statement we made at the last UNHRC session, we delivered my statement in memory of the champion for the marginalised, for Dalit rights, and vocal critic of Hindu extremism: Gauri Lankesh, who had been murdered outside her home a few weeks before.
In general, much more needs to be done to protect human right defenders against who are increasingly at risk from harassment and intimidation and we are working with other NGOs who lobby internationally to help ensure this happens.
The rights of women and girls from low- castes and minorities: Many women and girls from low-caste backgrounds and minorities, are subjected to kidnapping and forced religious conversion. The Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief has observed that “such incidents seem to occur in a climate of impunity”. Civil society organizations have reported several cases of Dalit Hindu girls being kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam following marriage in Pakistan.
Caste-based discrimination on the grounds of religion has a particular impact on women and girls. The existence of practices labelled as “religious dedication” of girls to temple deities, including the Devadasi system, constitutes a de facto form of forced prostitution and sexual slavery, mainly targeting Dalit girls.
More generally, high levels of rape and violence against women and girls in communities and areas in India (and beyond) can be clearly ascribed to culture that denigrates women.
It is violence that results from cultures that tolerates misogyny and conservative religious ideology. There are many other forms of violence defended on cultural and religious grounds that do not always make the headlines but are constant and entrenched, effecting millions of women: honour killings, dowry killings, beatings, and rape.
We are clear in our advocacy: Culture, tradition and religious doctrine should never be permitted to undermine the human rights of women or anyone else.