India should accept the recommendations by United Nations member states at the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to address the country’s most serious human rights problems. During the September 2012 session of the UN Human Rights Council, India will submit its responses to the 169 recommendations made at its second review on May 24, 2012.
The wide-ranging recommendations call upon India to ratify multinational treaties against torture and enforced disappearances, repeal the much-abused Armed Forces Special Powers Act, impose a moratorium on the death penalty, introduce an anti-discrimination law, and protect the rights of women, children, Dalits, tribal groups, religious minorities, and other groups at risk. The Indian government has promised a “comprehensive response” to these recommendations.
“The Indian government should make a serious effort to carry out these recommendations instead of simply pointing to existing legislation or policies,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “What’s needed is a strong commitment to transparency and accountability to protect human rights, not more lame assertions of good intentions.”
The UPR is the mechanism to examine the human rights records of all 192 UN member states. It provides an opportunity for each state, every four years, to explain what actions it has taken to improve respect for human rights in its own country. Each country’s UPR has a final document with conclusions and recommendations. India’s first review was in 2008, but only a few of the recommendations were properly carried out.
During its 2012 review the Indian government set out the fundamental rights provided by the constitution, judicial pronouncements, the Right to Information Act, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Education Act of 2009, and the National Food Security Bill to demonstrate the government’s commitment to protect human rights.
The Indian government described a number of recent positive human rights developments, Human Rights Watch said. It said that child labor had declined by 45 percent over the last five years, though the government’s statistic needs corroboration since many children work undetected in homes and shops. The government also made a commitment to strengthen enforcement of laws to prevent domestic violence. The government supported the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment decriminalizing consensual sex between adults of the same sex and explained that transgender people in India now have the right to be listed as “other” rather than “male” or “female” on electoral rolls and voter identity cards.
However, on other crucial human rights issues, the Indian government’s response was misleading, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, the Indian government, in responding to concerns that an anti-torture bill was still awaiting parliamentary approval, suggested that existing laws have sufficient prohibitions against torture.
“The Indian government is well aware of the rampant beatings, sexual assault, and other torture in Indian police stations and should be working hard to pass the anti-torture law,” Ganguly said. “The urgent need for police reform and accountability simply isn’t being addressed under existing laws.”
The Indian government downplayed abuses by the security forces and the role of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in facilitating these abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The government asserted that most complaints of army and paramilitary abuses were found to be false, and said that the act had been upheld by the Supreme Court. But the government failed to note that it has ignored measures to prevent abuses outlined in the Supreme Court ruling.
The AFSPA grants the armed forces the power to shoot to kill in law enforcement situations, to arrest people without warrant and detain them without time limits, and forbids prosecution of soldiers without approval from the central government, which is rarely granted. Abuses by the security forces may not be independently investigated, even by the National Human Rights Commission, providing members of the armed forces effective immunity for torture and other crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
“The army and paramilitary forces will be free to commit abuses as long as there is no independent and transparent mechanism to investigate serious allegations against them,” Ganguly said. “India should repeal the AFSPA to end the scourge of impunity that has existed over many decades.”
Human Rights Watch, in its submission before the UPR, called upon India to engage substantially on issues relating to women and to announce comprehensive steps to address concerns about child labor, child sexual abuse, and trafficking.
There are repeated allegations of discrimination based on caste, gender, religion, or ethnicity. India needs a comprehensive approach to eliminating discrimination by the national, state, and local governments and by private entities, Human Rights Watch said.
The Indian government also did not adequately address excessive restrictions on association and speech, Human Rights Watch said. It should respond to concerns that the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act can be abused to restrict civil society organizations from promoting human rights by limiting their access to foreign donations. The government has also recently called upon internet service providers to censor content for anything that might cause communal disharmony.
On the death penalty, the government said it only applied in the “rarest of rare cases,” and pointed to the options of pardons, reprieves, remission, or suspension for any capital offense. India should join the growing community of nations that have endorsed the UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said.
“India should look at the periodic review of its human rights as a way to check its own progress and to sharpen and renew its commitment to improving human rights for all citizens,” Ganguly said.