By Ravi Kanth Devarakonda
India says it implements universal human rights as it reckons the world is one family – “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” – in which it is imperative to comply with the existing international rules governing civil, political, economic, and social rights.
But reports prepared by several special rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council and civil society groups paint a grim picture of continued violations of the fundamental human rights that India had agreed to in various international conventions and treaties.During the recent third cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of India under the auspices of the Council on May 4, 2017, these two clashing narratives came under scrutiny, according to several participants in the meeting.
The UPR came into existence in 2006 for reviewing the human rights records of all member-states of the United Nations. It provides an opportunity for each country to inform other members about the steps it has taken for improving human rights covering areas such as civil, cultural, political, social, and economic rights.
Over the years, the UPR has become a barometer for assessing the prevailing state of human rights as well as compliance in the country under examination. Every nation faces a herculean task in implementing various human rights as agreed to in international conventions and treaties. No nation can claim to be a paragon of virtues in its overall human rights record.
Even those who claim to be the champions of human rights – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others – have committed pervasive violations. “But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract,” writes Pankaj Mishra in his book ‘The Age of Anger’.
“In the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals – trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity,” Mishra has argued.
Against this background, India’s third cycle (2017-2021) of UPR assumed considerable significance because of clashing narratives presented by the current Indian government on the one side, and several western governments and civil society groups on the other. India had already faced two cycles of reviews in 2008 and 2012 during which many of the western governments and India were not on the same page.
The Indian government has insisted that there is little to complain about overall implementation of human rights over the past three years. But the non-governmental organizations from India as well as international NGOs have circulated reports prior to the meeting cataloguing violations of human rights over the past three years. The Western governments also raised numerous issues before the meeting.
“As a responsible member of the United Nations, my country remains committed towards meaningful engagement with international organizations as well as other states in a spirit of reciprocity with a common desire for a better world,” said Mukul Rohatgi, India’s Attorney General, the country’s top legal official.
Rohtagi led the Indian delegation, which included officials from the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs and other ministries to showcase India’s overall track record across various areas. India, he said, remains committed to “openness and diversity, co-existence and cooperation.”
“India believes that achieving human rights goals calls for constant dialogue, engagement and coordination among various stakeholders,” said Rohatgi in his opening remarks at the third Universal Periodic Review on May 4.
The top Indian legal official listed several initiatives being implemented by the ruling Narendra Modi government, which came to power in 2014 after defeating the previous Congress-led government.
The initiatives include: “Smart Cities, Make in India, ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (celebrate the girl child and enable her education), ‘Swachh Bharat’ (clean India), ‘Jan Dhan Yojana’ (bank accounts for all), Digital India, Skill India, Start-up India etc. The government wants to make India the “skill capital of the world through the Skill India Initiative.”
As regards India’s observance of fundamental human rights, the attorney general said: India is guided by ‘Sabka Saath’, ‘Sabka Vikas’ (all together and development for all). India assiduously follows the model of “inclusive development” that is underpinned by “a rights-oriented constitutional framework, secular polity, independent judiciary, free and vibrant media, vocal civil society and a range of national and state level commissions that monitor compliance with human rights.” More important, “safeguarding the rights of minorities forms an essential core of our polity,” Rohtagi asserted.
In short, the Indian delegation maintained that barring a few exceptions the country’s human rights record was almost impeccable. Even concerns about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and torture were being addressed. “Aberrations, if any, are dealt with by our internal processes,” and “when India speaks, she does so not just for herself, but also for the larger cause of justice, dignity and human rights.”
As expected, various western and other governments posed advance questions as well as raised oral concerns on various issue. Several western governments – the United States, Germany, Norway, South Korea, and Switzerland – raised sharp concerns over restrictions imposed by the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act on non-governmental organizations for securing funds. There was a need to amend the act. Guatemala and Rwanda pressed for elimination of all forms of discrimination.
India was asked to ratify the convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by Sweden, the United States, Norway, Bulgaria, Greece, Guatemala, Italy, Lebanon, Australia, Germany, Japan, and Ireland.
Participants such as Sierra Leone, Greece, Ukraine, and Burkina Faso, among others, wanted India to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced disappearance. Sweden, Australia, Slovenia, Iceland, France, and Zambia, among others, asked India to criminalize marital rape and take strong measures for stopping honour crimes.
Several countries also urged India to address violence on religious minorities and lack of freedom of religion, continued use of torture and the need to ratify the convention against torture, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues.
Serious concerns were also raised at the meeting about attacks on minorities and the down-trodden sections of the Indian society called Dalits (Scheduled cases) and tribals (scheduled tribes), large scale displacement of people and issues concerning climate change, right to food, killings of writers and journalists.
Ahead of India’s third cycle review, the Human Rights Council circulated a 15-page report to the UN General Assembly on February 22. The report compiled a list of numerous instances of violations of human rights. The Special Rapporteur (SR, an independent expert for a specific country or thematic mandate from the UN Human Rights Council) on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, for example, stated:
“India should repeal or at least radically amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Jammu and Kashmir Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, with the aim of ensuring that the legislation regarding the use of force by the armed forces provided for the respect of the principle of proportionality and necessity in all instances, as stipulated under international law.”
The SR made several other recommendations such as the need for the prevention of torture bill and compliance with the international Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The report also suggested the reforms needed for creating an independent National Human Rights Commission.
The Special Rapporteur on violence against women referred to several cases of violence against women. The Special Rapporteur on minority issues referred to numerous cases of violence on Dalits (referred to as scheduled castes), including Dalit Muslim and Christian communities.
India’s responses, however, were anything but convincing, said Miloon Kothari, a former special rapporteur. “The Indian delegation provided weak and defensive responses and put people off track by saying we have constitutional provisions for almost every issue raised during the meeting,” he said on May 5.
To a question on racism and recent racist attacks in India as raised by one country Haiti, the Indian top official replied that India is a “pluralistic society existing for hundreds of years and there is no question of racism.”
Around 250 recommendations were made after the review for improving the human rights situation in India About the continuation of manual scavenging, which is a disgrace to the Indian society, the Indian response, according to Kothari, was: “We are implementing Swachh Bharat (Clean India) program.” The Indian delegation did not explain what additional steps the government had planned to put a halt to manual scavenging which continues despite its abolition,
On the whole, Kothari said: “The Indian government’s attitude to questions was bordering either on defensive replies or deliberately giving misleading and evasive replies – that would tantamount to everything is okay.”