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India & UN Human Rights: BJP Govt Has Little to Show at Geneva Review

The number of recommendations states issue to India is increasing drastically, from 169 in 2012 to 250 in 2017.

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Opinion
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India & UN Human Rights: BJP Govt Has Little to Show at Geneva Review
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Ahead of India’s periodic human rights review in Geneva, it is worrying that India’s own reporting so far excludes civil and political human rights. Given that Indian diplomats played key roles in enshrining an expansive rights framework in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), United Nations member states must question the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on why it is dishonouring India’s human rights tradition.

From 13 June to 8 July, the UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva for its 50th session. One of the items on the agenda is the discussion of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a review of the human rights records of all UN member states. At this session, India will be a mere commentator, and its human rights record features nowhere on the agenda. But in November, at the next session of the Council, India itself will be summoned as part of the UPR routine.

The BJP government’s stance towards the universal periodic human rights review at the United Nations is contradictory and evasive. A close eye on India’s preparation for the UPR will be a telling sign of the lack of commitment to the indivisibility of human rights India’s BJP government has.

Snapshot
  • Ahead of India’s periodic human rights review in Geneva, it is worrying that the country's own reporting so far excludes civil and political human rights. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) analyses the human rights records of all UN member states.

  • In 2019, Amit Shah claimed that while “the protection and promotion of human rights have always been an indelible part of our culture”, western standards could not be blindly applied to India.

  • The number of recommendations states issue to India is increasing drastically, from 169 in 2012, prior to the BJP’s rise to power, to 250 in 2017.

  • Freedom House’s report considers India a "country in the spotlight" for the “deterioration of basic freedoms”; it gave India the status of a "partly free" country.

  • The BJP government’s position that human rights are divisible, and that some of them can be left out completely in periodic reporting, shows a lack of commitment to the UN system.

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Failure to Report on Civil and Political Rights

BJP-led India is worryingly unreceptive of recommendations and questions regarding civil and political human rights, which include, for instance, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the prohibition of torture, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detention. India’s mid-term report, which comes halfway through the UPR process – so in 2020 for the UPR cycle that began in 2017 – blatantly sidelines civil and political human rights.

The terms “human rights defenders”, “freedom of expression”, “freedom of assembly” and “right to protest” are not mentioned at all. This absolutely does not reflect the expectations of other member states – fifteen countries explicitly recommended that India ensure full protection for religious minorities from violence, including mob lynching. India’s mid-term UPR report makes no mention whatsoever of progress in this regard. Rather, it vaguely refers to the Indian Constitution and the existence of special laws. Some states, such as Italy and the Netherlands, explicitly mentioned anti-conversion laws, recommending their repeal – a recommendation India chooses to simply not bring up.

Keeping in mind that the report cited above is only an interim mid-way version, there is still scope for India to comprehensively discuss its progress later this year. Its report is expected to be released this summer. It could better reflect the fact that every fourth recommendation concerned peace, justice and strong institutions.

But if India continues its trend of failing to constructively respond to recommendations on civil and political rights while hyper-focusing on social and economic rights, its credibility will be severely damaged.

India is not the only state not to act on recommendations issued. As many as 22 percent of recommendations received in 2008 did not feature in these countries’ own reports, and only 26 percent of recommendations were fully implemented. However, an issue of concern is which recommendations India chooses to respond to and implement.

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BJP Govt Has Made Its Position Quite Clear

India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, has made the BJP government’s position quite obvious. In 2019, he claimed that while “the protection and promotion of human rights have always been an indelible part of our culture”, western standards of human rights could not be blindly applied to India. Arguing that the concept of human rights in India is very different from what’s applied globally, he equated Indian human rights values almost exclusively with socio-economic development. This is a severe shortcoming not just due to the interconnectedness and indivisibility of human rights, but also because it is so utterly different from the understanding of human rights that India has brought to the international sphere for decades. The BJP clearly appropriates decoloniality and resisting ‘the West’ to fit its own narrative.

During the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) after the Second World War, Indian diplomats played a crucial role in expanding the document’s scope, where India fought for an ‘indivisibility’ perspective on human rights where economic, social and cultural rights would be treated with the same level of importance as civil and political rights. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, sister of Jawaharlal Nehru and herself a diplomat, advanced the view that “equality for all and a life free from all forms of discrimination was a prerequisite to a life to be lived with dignity”.

MR Masani pushed for discrimination on grounds of political opinion to be included, with which Lakshmi N Menon strongly agreed. She argued that India “would never agree to restricting political rights in order to realize social aims, however noble those aims might be”.
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Is India Ready to Answer Tough Questions?

The number of recommendations states issue to India is increasing drastically, from 169 in 2012, prior to the BJP’s rise to power, to 250 in 2017. This is perhaps because the government has largely failed both to implement previous recommendations and to respond to the recommendations satisfactorily.

In 2012, for instance, several countries called upon India to ratify the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), which it had previously signed. When the BJP government did not do so, even after the Indian Law Commission itself recommended ratification, the same recommendation was picked up again in the 2017 session, this time by over 30 states.

The Record Has Only Worsened

Since the previous UPR session in 2017, India’s human rights record under the BJP government has only worsened. While it has indeed decriminalised homosexual relations, which many states had recommended, its trajectory is inching towards outright hostility towards fundamental human rights. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report, for instance, considers India a "country in the spotlight" for the “deterioration of basic freedoms”; it gave India the status of a "partly free" country.

The BJP government’s position that human rights are divisible, and that some of them can be left out completely in periodic reporting, shows a lack of commitment to the UN system.

Ahead of the next review, UN member states, especially those who addressed the tough topics, must thoroughly question the BJP government on what it has done to implement their recommendations.

(Alena Kahle works as advocacy and communications consultant for The London Story, a diaspora-led think tank, where she is responsible for engagement with the European Parliament and the UN system. Ritumbra Manuvie is lecturer for international law at the University Groningen, and Executive Director of The London Story. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  BJP   United Nations   Human Rights 

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