India in the Spotlight

  • Date / 29 June 2012

It is now three years since I was last in India and I had not realised until today that the country has transformed itself into a paradise for human rights since 2008. Today it was India’s turn in the spotlight in a process known as the Universal Periodic Review under which every state in the UN has to submit to an examination of its human rights record. So this afternoon I sat and listened to the Attorney General of India present his county’s report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and what a report!

In the past three years the Government of India has adopted legislation to provide free primary schooling to every child in the country; it has provided land rights to more than one million forest dwellers; the Right of Information Act has revolutionised the concept of good governance and made it transparent and accountable; the Rural Employment Guarantee Act has provided employment for 54 million households in 2010 and 2011; both infant and maternal mortality levels have fallen by between 15 and 20% in the past ten years; the National Food Security Bill marks a paradigm shift from welfare to a rights-based approach; and the 12th Five-Year Plan is triggering a rising tide that is “lifting all boats”.

After such a glowing report it seemed almost churlish that some of the 94 states who commented on India’s progress were less than 100% enthusiastic.  But it was as well that no NGOs were permitted to speak.

Many NGOs had been active all week lobbying delegations on the continuing plight of women, Dalits and other minorities. The lobbying has been loud, powerful and persistent. Very few delegations could still be unaware of how appalling living conditions are for hundreds of millions of India’s poorest of the poor.

Yogesh Verhade of the Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace produced a 16-page dossier showing in statements by government ministers how they had failed in their commitments to improve living conditions, human rights and access to justice for the vast majority of the Indian people. They stand condemned by their own words.  Over the past six years, hundreds of thousands of heinous crimes have been reported against members of the so-called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – figures that include more than 4000 murders and 12,000 rapes.

But these figures really are the tip of the iceberg. According to some NGOs only about 10% of serious crimes are ever officially reported – not just from shame in the case of rape – but because the perpetrators are rarely if ever brought to justice by India’s endemically corrupt law enforcement agencies, while victims who do report these crimes often face reprisals from the police themselves.  The actual toll is closer to two murders a day of innocent Dalits and 60 rapes a day of Dalit girls. So much for a paradise for human rights.

It was left to a handful of Western states to suggest that India could do better. One suggestion that seemed eminently reasonable was that India should sign up to the Convention Against Torture. But the criticism that a draft law against torture attempts to redefine it was met by the response that India had to get its own law in place before considering international norms. (Er, yes, I had to read that again even after I wrote it.) The suggestion that military personnel should no longer be able to commit crimes with impunity elicited the response that reform was “on its way”. But reforms have done little to change the impunity enjoyed by military personnel accused of atrocities, and military personnel remain immune from prosecution for crimes against civilians.

We know from experience that law enforcement in India has lagged decades or even generations behind India’s law making. Time and again India’s delegates to the Human Rights Council have argued that their legislation is a model that other countries would do well to follow, while disclaiming all responsibility for the social attitudes that ensure the laws are rarely enforced.

Report card: Some progress has been achieved over the past four years, but far, far more needs to be done, especially at the level of implementation and enforcement.

–Roy Brown, Head of IHEU Delegation at the United Nations in Geneva

24 May 2012

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