Torture to sex ratio: Scrutiny of India's rights record in UNHRC

In a few hours from now, India’s human rights record will come up for international scrutiny at the UN Human Rights Council, with member countries raising questions on issues ranging from death penalty, torture and manual scavenging to women’s reservation in parliament and HIV/AIDS.

India is one of the 14 countries that are being reviewed at the 13th session of the HRC under its Universal Period Review (UPR) that is currently underway in Geneva. This is the second cycle of the review by a working group comprising the member countries.

The second cycle of the review is an important step for India’s human rights image.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had said in March that the second cycle “will test the mechanism’s value and credibility.”

According to the President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Laura Dupuy Lasserre, it would be a “moment of truth.”

The review will be sort of a dialogue between the working group members and the members of the Indian delegation on India’s national report that had been submitted to the Council and information compiled by the UN and stakeholders. The member countries have given their “advance questions” for clarification to the delegation.

India could face questions various aspects of its human rights record. Reuters

The most common query from the working group is on torture and the threat faced by human rights defenders in India. Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland and Slovenia have raised queries on either both or one of these issues.

Denmark has queries on death penalty and manual scavenging while Germany has additional questions on discrimination of minorities and access to education and healthcare for “underprivileged minorities.”

England has raised questions on racial violence and the laws and bills on religious conversion.

Perhaps with reference to some recent incidents in which the Union government probed the source of funding of some NGOs engaged in human rights work, Germany also raises the question of freedom of human rights activists in the wake of amendment to the FCRA (Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010).

Ireland has asked if India will introduce a witness protection scheme for the safety of human rights defenders. Germany also raises the questions on how the country handles racial violence.

The clarifications sought by the working group members also demonstrate the wider scope of human rights that looks at rights issues from a comprehensive human development perspective.

In this regard, India will face specific queries on child labour, time-frame for implementation of one-third reservation of seats for women in parliament, the status of the anti-HIV/AIDS discrimination bill, improvement of prison conditions, bonded labour and the country’s declining sex ratio.

The response by India on each of the queries will help human rights activists and organisations, both at home and abroad, to hold India accountable to its international commitment and claims. One of the stated purpose of the review is to improve the human rights situation on the ground.

India’s human rights report to UNHRC that comes under the present review is quite exhaustive and takes a broader and inclusive view of the issue. The report notes that “India’s approach towards protection and promotion of human rights has been characterised by a holistic, inclusive and multi-pronged effort.”

The report notes that the concept of “human rights has undergone a revolutionary interpretative evolution at the hands of the Supreme Court (fully supported by the Government), as a result of which new vistas have emerged around the dynamic content of human rights.”

Illustrating the point, the reports says that the country has broadened the traditional narrow approach towards equality and proceeded on the basis of a positive mandate to eradicate backwardness in any form, social, economic and educational.

“Similarly, the freedoms under Article 19 have been given a wide connotation as, for instance, the expansion of the freedom of speech and expression to include the right to obtain information. The Right to life and Personal Liberty in Article 21 has now come to encompass the right to a clean environment, right to legal aid, elimination of bonded labour, right to livelihood, right to speedy and fair trial, and right to education, amongst various other rights.”

The report therefore talks about Right to Information,  the “rarest of rare” instances of death penalty and the review systems (out of the 13 mercy petitions between 2009 and 2012, 10 have been commuted to life); decriminalisation of homosexuality, convention against torture and the host of social development initiatives such as NREGS and initiatives for the empowerment of women.

Sounds quite progressive but the devil is in the details which are not entirely revealing.

The contentious Lokpal that finds a mention in the report is a case in point. On the country’s response to corruption, the report says: “in order to curb corruption and in a path-breaking development, the Government has introduced the Lok Pal and Lokayukta Bill in the Parliament in 2011. This was passed by the Lok Sabha in December 2011, and is now before the Rajya Sabha for its consideration.”

What is seriously missing are the details of the debate on the bill.

Although India is seeking to present itself with a fairly decent human rights record, particularly with some recent developments, what is unmissable is the role of the country’s judiciary in prodding it to action.

Without the supreme court interventions from time to time, India’s record would have appeared distinctively weak.

India will also need do a lot of real whitewashing of its record of attacks on human rights activists and torture, without proper witness protection schemes, and abominable practices such as manual scavenging and discrimination of certain populations such as people living with HIV/AIDS.

Updated Date: May 24, 2012 16:15 PM

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