Ambassador (ret.) Scott H. DeLisi
Remarks a the Consultation Program of the Global Forum Against Caste Discrimination on ensuring Dalit rights for Democracy, Dignity and Justice
On the occasion of 52th international Day for elimination of racial discrimination
Aurora, Colorado, March 18th, 2017
Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you to Global Forum Against Caste Discrimination for allowing me to share a few thoughts on the occasion of the 52nd International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
It is my honor to be standing here with colleagues who care about the effort to end caste-based discrimination and racism but, even more, it is an honor to join hands with men and women who care about human dignity and who seek to make a difference in the world in which we live.
As someone who lived in South Asia for years, I saw the reality of caste-based discrimination. I felt compelled, as you do, to make an effort to address this unjust practice; a practice that disregards our common humanity and that violates the fundamental rights of all that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
During my years of service in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia I worked closely with many Dalit leaders and, from them, I learned about the tremendous societal prejudice facing members of their community. Particularly in rural areas, Dalits continue to struggle for equal rights. Dalits in Nepal – and throughout South Asia – are among the poorest members of society and lack the same opportunities – educational, professional, and economic – enjoyed by other citizens.
In some cases grinding poverty forces Dalit women into commercial sex work where they are at risk of disease, violence, and further societal ostracism but what are their options when the survival of their family is at stake. Dignity vs survival – a stark choice and one that is forced on them by those who refuse to see them as individuals with aspirations, but rather as beings consigned to a lesser status by a caste structure that steals their hope and dreams
The impact of this discrimination is of course devastating to the affected communities but, what people often fail to realize, is that it imposes costs on society as a whole as well. Those who condone or practice discrimination on the basis of caste fail to see that the nation loses a hidden treasure when the skills and intellect of so many citizens go untapped and unrealized. And any nation that fails to care for such a large segment of its population, that rejects their basic humanity and denies them fundamental protection of law and basic respect, has failed in its first duty to its people and is diminished as a society.
Overt and institutionalized discrimination, such as we see when dealing with caste-based discrimination, puts us on a slippery slope and creates a mindset that makes it easier to diminish any group with whom we disagree. “They are different, they aren’t as pure as us, as smart as us, as deserving as us. ” You’ve seen it. You’ve felt it. And you know it is not right.
These are issues that Americans feel quite strongly about. And we should. We have our own bitter legacy in American history of institutionalized slavery and overt discrimination. We fought a bloody civil war in the United States to rectify the slavery issue, and we are still fighting today to address discrimination in its many forms. You heard issues discussed throughout the recent presidential campaign about institutionalized racism and today there are debates about “white privilege” that raise troubling reminders of past times.
A recent poll in the US found that 42% of respondents saw race relations in our nation to be a major issue of concern — a few years back that number was under 20%. It was a little more than eight years ago that we elected our first back president but today, as the poll numbers suggest, the climate has changed and we are experiencing a backlash and assertions of “white supremacy” that are, to many of us, as shocking as they are reprehensible. We see how quickly the tide can ebb and flow on issues of social justice. Whether in the United States or in Nepal, we must continue to fight for what we believe is right and for the values that define us.
Our U.S. Constitution is a short document and we have only amended it 17 times since the original draft over 230 years ago. Tellingly, five of those amendments were specifically created to eliminate slavery and involuntary servitude, and to protect the rights of people in the United States that suffered from discrimination [Amendments 13, 14, 15, 19, and 24]. On top of those amendments, we have added decades of civil rights legislation and court cases that have clearly set down the foundation for America’s attempts to stamp out discrimination and promote equal rights for all of our citizens.
In the past 50 years there has been progress on some of these concerns in Nepal as well. A 1963 revision to the civil code made untouchability illegal and decreed all Nepalis to be equal under the law. And, while I served as Ambassador in Nepal, the parliament passed the Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Act in 2011, which went even further and criminalized caste-based discrimination.
Over time we have also seen public debate become more dynamic. Dalit organizations have lobbied for equal protection and justice and found a degree of support from various quarters. Sadly, however, legislation and social activism, although important, cannot change attitudes overnight. Prejudices, deeply engrained in the cultural, social, and faith norms of some our citizens, continue to foster discrimination whether against people of different colors or faiths in the United States, or against people of lower caste, or outside of the caste system, in Nepal.
The true issue for consideration isn’t whether we stand against prejudice and discrimination – you have answered that by your presence here today. But HOW we will stand against caste-based discrimination and racism, and how we can be most effective, are questions worth considering. We cannot be just another “talk shop” and believe that something truly meaningful will occur.
Over the years, as a representative of the government of the United States, I had the chance, and the obligation, to speak out often and passionately on behalf of human rights. I fought for social change. I sought to empower women, protect children, fight for workers rights, offer a voice to the voiceless, including those in LGBT communities whose lives were at risk merely because of their sexual identity.
In Nepal, our Embassy fought for Dalit rights, and we practiced what we preached. Within our Embassy we had long-standing programs to promote ethnic diversity in our hiring practices and to prevent discrimination from occurring. Our hiring policies focused on making sure that the people in the Embassy reflected the rich mix of Nepal’s population. We also had an internship program that brought in interns from disadvantaged communities and backgrounds — not as an act of charity but because we valued the importance of diversity and knew that it would make us stronger, better, and more effective in all we did.
This is one of the first things we must remember and help people to understand. We are stronger together, than we are divided. And we are stronger when we are open to dialogue and engagement, even on the most sensitive of issues, than we are when we sit in isolation behind walls constructed from our fears and prejudices. We must be unrelenting and unyielding in speaking out but we must equally be determined to find ways to encourage and foster thoughtful dialogue on both sides and not just offer our indignation and heated rhetoric.
One of the next things that we must do, if we truly want to effect change, is that we must engage youth. Among the older generation, opinions have far too often become set in stone with the passage of the years with little willingness to consider alternative views. Some folks will never accept change.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage them — we should engage anyone willing to listen — but it is the youth, I believe, that we must truly reach. Youth in Nepal make up over seventy percent of the population. They will lead the nation, they will set its policies. And, if we engage them constructively and thoughtfully, they are far more likely to be open to change and a new social dispensation than their parents and grandparents. We must begin with their generation – not their elders — to reshape the future.
When we created the Youth Advisory Council for our Embassy in Kathmandu the participants were drawn from a diverse group of Nepalese youth. My belief was that young people in Nepal had more in common with each other as youth facing the challenges of the future and seeking to transform their society, than they did with the traditional identity labels of caste, ethnicity, tribe, language, faith or geographic place of origin. Dalit or Brahmin, Hindu or Muslim, Rai or Sherpa,or Tamang, or Newar. What mattered wasn’t the language you spoke at home or where you lived in the country. What mattered was building an alliance committed to addressing the challenges of the future successfully. What mattered was building a new Nepal together.
That new Nepal has no room for caste-based discrimination, and the youthful partners who will shape that future comprise an audience that you must engage and work with. You need the energy and vision of youth who are willing to be constructive agents of social and political change. And you need to convince them, through dialogue and engagement, that equality, opportunity, and protection under the law for all — not just for traditional elites — is the path to a strong future for Nepal.
I would also argue that all of us, as we engage on these issues about which we feel passionately, must ensure that we model the behavior we want to become the norm. What do I say that? Well, too often I fear, I find myself meeting with groups dominated by men, closer to my age than not, and I ask them “where are the women – where are the youths?” There is often no answer. This is not a model that will build the partnerships we need to change attitudes and transform society.
Traditional norms that consign women to roles behind the scenes or that dictate that young people should remain silent before their elders must change. Even as we seek to eliminate caste – based discrimination we cannot treat women and youth with the same disregard with which many people treat Dalits or lower-caste citizens.
We must remember that we need women’s voices and engagement – they ARE after all over half the nation. We need young people to engage with us because they ARE after all the majority of the nation’s population. We need to find ways to make our concerns about discrimination, their concerns as well. We should not dismiss them because of their youth, we should embrace them because of it and for the innovation, energy and passion they will bring to the cause.
We should willingly share with them the wisdom that comes from experience but we need to simultaneously be open to the new ideas that they bring and we must identify leadership roles for them and encourage them to take on those challenges. In essence, we need to rethink how we engage — and with whom — as we develop new, stronger, and broader partnerships that will allow us together to build a new future in which respect for all is engrained in the ethos of our societies.
There is no magic wand that I know of that will transform Nepal or the United States and level the playing field overnight. We must engage in a determined and focused and sustained effort, pressing forward on every level. It takes a commitment of time, energy, and resources.
I know that not all of us can commit ourselves as fully as we might like to. We have jobs, we have families, we have many responsibilities. But we cannot become so comfortable in our routines that we become indifferent to social injustice and to the need to fight it. Find a way. Find your niche. Make the effort. And know that although effecting change is hard and it often comes slowly, it can and does come. It must come
After almost 35 years of service as a career diplomat, including three Ambassadorial assignments, I retired from the State Department at the end of 2015. But I knew that I had no choice but to remain engaged in the world and to continue the effort to effect change. I am finding ways to act on my beliefs and I know you are too.
The Soarway Foundation, which I am honored to now lead, is committed to Nepal. We know that we must work to make Nepal stronger, safer and more resilient before the next earthquake strikes. The time to act is now, when we can still save lives and make a difference. Inaction will result in lives being lost that we could have saved. It will mean far more homes and schools and temples and shrines will be destroyed than need be, and it will mean that the hopes of a generation will be crushed, not realized.
At Soarway we know, however, that we must do more than build strong homes and schools. We must build a stronger society and stronger communities in which all people, of all castes and outside of caste, have the chance to be empowered, to contribute and to be part of the nation’s future.
At Soarway we are caste-blind in our engagement and that is why I was dismayed — but sadly, not shocked — to read reports that assistance and support after the 2015 quakes had often be directed to higher caste families, leaving marginalized communities who were among the most disadvantaged before the quakes, in even greater peril. There were hopeful instances in which communities came together and where caste disappeared as people faced a common need and shared struggle. But too often that was not the case and now, more than ever, we need caste-blind partners committed to the future of Nepal.
I believe that success in fighting caste-based discrimination will be advanced by organizations, like the Soarway Foundation, that are committed to and focused on strengthening and uplifting all Nepali’s. We will see success if organizations like Soarway are inspired to work with youth and women and men of all communities to build a stronger and safer Nepal and, together, to shape a future that the people of Nepal — ALL the people of Nepal — can face with hope rather than fear.
It is an honor to be with you today to address these common challenges we face. I know we all want to make a difference. We all care about Nepal and it’s future. But I know it is also hard at times to see the way forward. Even if you cannot be an activist making a difference in the villages every day you can still help, and one way to do that is to become part of the Soarway Foundation and its mission to create a future of hope for all communities. Soarway welcomes partners like you and we’re a 501(c)(3) charity so your contribution is tax deductible. Any donation helps, but I’d like to ask you to consider the small, but vitally important step, of joining the Soarway1000. https://www.crowdrise.com/donate/project/the-soarway-1000/thesoarwayfoundation/0 (Click donate, choose the monthly option and your amount and you’re on your way)
We are seeking across our nation, 1000 people willing to commit 33 cents a day — 10 dollars a month — to make a difference in Nepal. With that sustained commitment from 1000 people we can expand our work in rebuilding homes and making schools safer. We can continue to work with Anuradha Didi of Maiti Nepal to protect vulnerable girls from being trafficked into sexual bondage. We can continue to support and expand our women’s empowerment program with the International Development Institute, that is benefitting women from all communities. We can help bring a new and exciting telemedicine program to Nepal that will save lives across all communities. And there is so much more we can do with your help.
33 cents a day. For most of us, that’s nothing. For the people we touch in Nepal? It’s priceless. If you are willing to be part of our team, I have more information on the Soarway 1000 with me and I will be happy to talk with you.
Once again, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be with you today. It has been a tremendous honor. I know that ending social prejudice is a long-term endeavor that requires persistent commitment, focus, and leadership. However, over time, I am convinced we will succeed in both the United States and Nepal.
You must remain committed however you can. You must shape your narrative to articulate not just past injustices but to highlight the potential for a better future when all the nation’s citizens are empowered and respected. And you must enlist the voices of the future. Unleash the passion and energy of youth and make the ending of caste-based discrimination part of a broader vision of what Nepal can be. — the Nepal that today’s youth will inherit and ultimately lead.
At Soarway, our mantra is Engage Nepal. That is what I urge you all to do, in the broadest sense, as part of this effort to fight caste-based discrimination. It is a shared struggle and one which I, and the Soarway Foundation, will continue to support. Permit me to salute you all for your do. Please keep up the great work. Please join our movement as part of the Soarway 1000, and please, Engage Nepal!