Putting rights issues through the looking glass. Not seeking answers, just some food for thought to see whether things could be any different!

Friday, May 18, 2007

India’s “questionable” credentials for UN Human Rights Council membership

India, along with 13 other countries was recently elected to the UN Human Rights Council. In a joint evaluation of the election candidates up for membership to the UN Human Rights Council in 2007 by human rights monitors, UN Watch and Freedom House, India’s qualifications were considered as “questionable”, along with countries like Bolivia, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Philippines, Madagascar and South Africa. The well-qualified states, according to the study were Denmark, Italy, Netherlands and Slovenia and those that were rated as completely unqualified, include Angola, Belarus, Egypt and Qatar. The UN General Assembly elected 14 members from the African group (4), Asian Group (4), Eastern European Group (2), Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries-GRULAC (2) and Western European and Others Group –WEOG (2). Bosnia-Herzegovina entered the race, a week before the elections following strong resistance to Belarus’ candidature by human rights groups. Belarus lost the elections to Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although Belarus’ failure at the Council elections upholds the fact that human rights records of states matter, there was no competition in the other regional groups as there were as many candidates as there were available seats. (Election Marred by Closed Slates in Three Regions, Human Rights Watch, 17 May 2007)

The pre-election study rated states on the basis of their domestic human rights record and commitment towards promotion of international human rights standards. The states rated as unqualified are authoritarian regimes with negative UN voting records and therefore, do not qualify for membership. The ones with “questionable” human rights credentials, including India, have either negative UN voting records or have a poor domestic human rights record and/or lack of commitment to international human rights. The study based its evaluation on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2007 survey, a study analysing the status of civil and political rights in countries, Reporter Sans Frontiers’ World Press Freedom Index 2007 and the Economist’s Index of Democracy 2007.

Although, India was rated as ‘free’ in the area of civil and political rights, it was ranked poorly with regard to freedom of expression and as a ‘flawed democracy’. India is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council and is seeking re-election for a three-year term. Some of the current members of the Council like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia can be tagged as persistent human rights violators and attributed with “questionable” human rights records.

India substantiated its candidature for election by reaffirming its earlier voluntary pledge on its strong commitment and leadership in the field of human rights. It would be interesting to evaluate India’s human rights record with respect to the developments in the past year. India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations has referred to India’s achievements at addressing domestic violence through the enactment of The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 and elimination of child labour through a ban on employment of children under the age of 14 years as domestic helps or at small restaurants/eateries etc. Unfortunately, the ban on child labour is far from effective as children continue to be employed in small businesses and as domestic helps across India and as far as the domestic violence legislation is concerned, it requires the state to set up certain institutional implementation mechanisms and unless that is done, endorsing it as a success story at international circles might prove injudicious on India’s part.

India has pledged to maintain the independence, autonomy and genuine powers of investigation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and other human rights bodies. However, in reality, the independence of the NHRC and all other human rights bodies is stymied by political interference at all levels, right from appointment to day-to-day functioning. The NHRC is not allowed to independently investigate cases of human rights abuse by the Indian armed forces, even when the fact of human rights violations by the armed forces is well established (SAHRDC, HRF/141/06). A promise to foster governmental transparency and accountability through the Right to Information Act have been broken by proposing a retrograde amendment by way of excluding all official ‘file notings’ from access to citizens, except in case of social development projects. But the public outcry over the proposed amendments, forced the government to withdraw them. The civil society in India is not as free as the pledge seems to indicate. The Foreign Contribution (Management and Control) Bill (FCMC) 2006 seeks to replace The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) 1976. The NGO sector in India has been actively protesting against the passing of this Bill as it proposes a blanket ban on receipt of foreign contributions by ‘organisations of political nature, not being political parties’ and leaves it to the subjective discretion of the government to decide which NGOs fall under the broad sweep of this law. With regard to advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in India, the CEDAW Committee’s harsh critique of India’s half-baked efforts at promoting the same, echoes serious concerns about the status of women in Indian society.

India has also pledged to make the Council an effective body and actively participate in the development of modalities for universal periodic review and strengthening the special procedures system. It would be important to mention that India is yet to ratify some of the core international human rights instruments such as the Convention Against Torture and its Optional Protocol, Migrant Worker’s Convention and both the Optional Protocols to the ICCPR. India has not extended a standing invitation to any of the UN special procedures and as far as periodic reporting to treaty based bodies are concerned, there has always been a considerable delay in its submission of reports. For example, India is yet to submit its fourth report to the Human Rights Committee that was due in 2001 and it finally submitted its joint second and third report to the CEDAW Committee in 2005, when the second report was due way back in 1998. Given its weak record with respect to periodic reporting and compliance with special procedure mechanisms, India’s claim to strengthen the Council mechanisms seems unconvincing.

The Council’s membership raises grave questions about the election process itself. Candidates are in competition with their regional counterparts and not with those outside their respective groups. The Council was meant to remedy the flaws of its highly discredited predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) but by allowing the election of member states with deplorable human rights conditions and least respect for international human rights norms, the Council is “moving in the direction of eroding, rather than strengthening, the UN's existing independent human rights mechanisms”. (UN Watch, NGOs alarmed at some UN Human Rights Council Candidates, 7 May 2007)

Rights and Development Bulletin, Volume 1, Issue 3, at http://www.cdhr.org.in


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