India must uphold its pledges to human rights: Worrying gap between commitment and practice

India must uphold its pledges to human rights: Worrying gap between commitment and practice

Aug 8, 2019

By Sarthak Roy and Aditi Patil


At the session, India’s voting patterns on issues of serious human rights concerns were in stark contrast with the commitments it had pledged to uphold while presenting its candidature as a Council member, write Sarthak Roy and Aditi Patil for South Asia Monitor

The primary purpose of independent India’s foreign policy was to uphold the spirit of multilateralism to achieve comprehensive and equitable solutions to all problems facing us. It was felt such an approach would help enable the domestic transformation of India from a poor and backward society into one which could offer her people their basic needs and an opportunity to achieve their potential.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once remarked that India has “emerged as a bridge between the many extremes of the world”. India’s plural and composite culture, he said, was “living proof of the possibility of a confluence of civilizations”. India helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), characterised as the ‘common language of humanity’. Indian representatives were able to verbalise lessons learnt from decades of the freedom struggle and the creation of the Indian Constitution during the drafting of the UDHR.

During the UN's tumultuous years of struggle against colonialism and apartheid, India was co-sponsor of the landmark 1960 UN Declaration on Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which proclaimed the need to unconditionally end colonialism. India was amongst the most outspoken critics of apartheid and racial discrimination in South Africa. In fact, India was the first country to raise the issue in the UN (in 1946) and played a leading role in the formation of a Sub-Committee against Apartheid set up by the General Assembly.

India’s participation at the 41st Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last month went largely unnoticed. Last October, India was elected unopposed to serve its fourth term as a member of the Council from 2019, and its current term ends in 2021. Before its recent election to the HRC, India submitted 28 voluntary pledges and commitments in the area of human rights to present its candidature as a Council member. Among others, India pledged to continue to uphold highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights as well as fostering a culture of transparency, openness and accountability in the functioning of Government.

At the session, India’s voting patterns on issues of serious human rights concerns were in stark contrast with the commitments it had pledged to uphold while presenting its candidature as a Council member. India participated in eight interactive dialogues, four general debates and three panel discussions in this session. In response to the report presented by the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, India’s representative stated that freedom of speech and expression are constitutionally mandated and are balanced with India's pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. During the interactive dialogue with the UN High Commissioner on the situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, India affirmed its undiluted commitment to offer any assistance required by Myanmar and encouraged the implementation of the agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh for the repatriation of persons verified to have been displaced from Rakhine State.

India joined consensus in adopting 15 thematic resolutions pertaining to issues such as elimination of discrimination against women and girls, human rights of migrants among others. India sponsored the resolution “Access to medicines and vaccines in the context of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” which was adopted by consensus.

India voted in favour of four thematic resolutions and did not vote against any thematic resolution. In a landmark judgment the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized consensual same-sex relations in September last year. At the HRC, India maintained its conservative three-year-old position by abstaining from voting on a resolution moved by Latin American states seeking to renew the mandate of independent experts on protection against violence and discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. This, despite an energetic campaign in India ahead of the voting, asking authorities to vote in favour of the resolution after the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. India joined Burkina Faso, Angola, DRC, Senegal and Togo, most of whom have questionable democratic credentials, in abstaining from the vote.

The quintessential strands of our foreign policy have been: peaceful co-existence, non-interference, peaceful resolution of disputes, and wider global cooperation in general. However, at the 41st Session, India’s civilisational beliefs in peace and tolerance appeared to come to a stuttering stop. India did not vote in favour of any country resolution and abstained from voting on two country resolutions concerning gross human rights violations in Ukraine and Syria. India, which once propounded “Panchsheel”, the five principles of peaceful co-existence for international relations, voted against three country resolutions including “Promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines”. It called upon the Council to take concrete actions against allegations of widespread human rights violations in the Philippines, including unlawful killings due to the violent “war on drugs” campaign. The resolution, passed by a small margin, mandates the Philippine Government to cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council mechanisms and to refrain from intimidation and reprisals. India joined Iraq, China, Cuba, Cameroon, Angola, Bahrain, Eritrea, Egypt, Hungary, Qatar, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and The Philippines in voting against the resolution.

Despite its pledges, to “continue to cooperate with the special procedures, accept requests for visits and respond to communications” India has a total of 21 requests and reminders pending from Special Procedures including the Special Rapporteurs on slavery, minority issues, torture (since 1999), trafficking, human rights and counter-terrorism. India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded to the Special Procedures based on the 2018 OHCHR Report on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), whereby it informed the UN body that it could no longer entertain any communication “with the HRC’s Special Rapporteurs on their report”. 

In its pledges, India also committed “to cooperate with treaty monitoring bodies and engage constructively with them in the context of fulfilling its human rights obligations”. However, it has three reports pending from International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since its last submission in 1995, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. 

Continuing past trends, India and Pakistan took potshots at each other in various debates with the bone of contention being J & K. India stated that Pakistan should “introspect its abysmal human rights situation before preaching to others and exposing itself as the champion of hypocrisy.” It emphasised to Pakistan that J & K’s accession to India is full and final.

The development of international human rights law (IHRL) in the post-World War II era has been premised on the notion that human rights are universal in nature. In order to uphold the universality of human rights, India needs to counter existing trends towards unilateralism, ethno-centrism, impunity and racial intolerance. The 42nd Session of the UNHRC is just a month away and there will be opportunities before India again to uphold its voluntary pledges and hold to account those countries that abuse human rights. Read more