Open Letter to the UN Secretary-General
I write to you in great hope. Your human rights credentials are impeccable. You fought the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees, you put the protection of refugees back at the centre of UNHCR’s work.
Your present visit to India comes at a time of a serious backlash against human rights. I hope you will speak about some of these issues, in your public pronouncements and in your talks with government. Some key questions I hope you will raise are:
Caste and sanitation– As the Government of India observes Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary at the grand conference on sanitation that you will be attending, we ask you to urge the organisers to take a close look at the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation who visited India recently. The rapporteur emphasized that “States cannot fully realize the human rights to water and sanitation without addressing stigma as a root cause of discrimination and other human rights violations”.
The rapporteur also referred to the continuing practice of manual scavenging – a concern that is unlikely to show up in the conference material, or for that matter in the speeches, since the programme does not include representatives of sanitation workers or those who work to defend their rights. Official data shows that more than 50,000 people are engaged in this practice – the number does not include those who clean sewers and septic tanks. The rapporteur added that “the growth in the number of toilets raises concerns that the generations-old practice of imposing sanitary tasks on the lower castes will continue in a discriminatory fashion.”
We hope that you will use the opportunity of your visit to highlight other key human rights issues:
Violence against Muslims– Much of India continues to believe in tolerance, pluralism and inclusion, but Hindu right-wing elements are hacking away at these values and Constitutional principles, one cow-related killing at a time.While violence against religious minorities is not a new phenomenon, an environment in which such attacks are condoned, often even endorsed by elected representatives, has instilled a sense of impunity among the attackers and fear and anxiety among minority communities.
Targetting of human rights defenders– Not content with paralyzing the work of defenders through the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, the state is using laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act to effectively shut them away for long periods. NGOs that cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms have faced reprisals. We urge you to remind the government that dissent is critical for the safeguarding of Constitutional values.
Extrajudicial executions, euphemistically called ‘encounter killings’ are carried out with such breathtaking impunity that they can only be construed as state policy. “Encounters are part of crime prevention,” the police chief of the state of Uttar Pradesh is reported to have said. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act has enabled extrajudicial executions in Jammu and Kashmir and in the states of northeast India such as Manipur. The government has ignored repeated calls by human rights defenders and UN human rights mechanisms to repeal the law.
Violence against women and girls– Rather than focusing on improving investigation and judicial processes and support mechanisms for survivors, the state has resorted to knee-jerk reactions, such as instituting the death penalty for the rape of children, setting up a sex offenders database that does not have the requisite safeguards to ensure the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence.
Jammu and Kashmir– Responding to the recent remote monitoring report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a sputtering, indignant establishment termed the report “fallacious, tendentious and motivated” without providing a substantive response to the allegations made in it. The Kashmir valley is in a tailspin. New Delhi continues to clamp down on fundamental freedoms in that beleaguered state. The use of human shields in military operations, the misuse of the draconian Public Safety Act, and the use of excessive and indiscriminate lethal force have ensured that civil unrest persists. Ordinary Kashmiris continue to live under a state of siege.
International human rights obligations– India continues to ignore its international human rights commitments with insouciance. It fails to report to human rights treaty bodies in time. It has issued standing invitations to the special procedures of the UN Human Right Council but ignores most requests for invitations. During the Universal Periodic Reviews, the Indian delegation chooses to ramble on about the plethora of laws and policies rather than pledge to address gaps and challenges in their implementation. India signed the UN Convention Against Torture in 1997 but is still to ratify it by passing an enabling law.
Refugees– In India, where External Affairs apparatchiks as well as self-styled guardians of ‘Indian culture’ intone, ad nauseum, that ‘the world is one family’, the approach towards refugees in general, and the Rohingya in particular, has been far from hospitable. India refuses to accede to the Refugee Convention and enact a domestic refugee protection law. Refugees therefore automatically fall within laws governing the entry, stay and exit of all foreigners, defined as anyone who is not a citizen of India. These Acts give wide discretionary powers to the State to detain and deport foreigners without due process.
Assam- In this northeastern Indian state with a historical record of migration – and unresolved tensions, often politically motivated – millions of people remain on tenterhooks, left out of an updated ‘National Register of Citizens’ often due to errors in paperwork and a lack of understanding of the process of application and review. Meanwhile, the rhetoric, including by senior functionaries of the ruling party, against irregular migrants has grown strident. The President of the ruling party recently referred to them as “termites”. Echoes of Rwanda?
I urge you to insist in your talks with government that any determination of citizenship must abide by human rights and humanitarian law and standards. The state’s failure in this respect could have disastrous consequences.
Mr. Secretary- General, in late 1976, Mario Soares, your fellow country man as Prime Minister of Portugal spoke out against the then authoritarian rule called the Emergency in India loudly and unequivocally. How can I expect any less from you? For us, socialists, democrats and human rights defenders in India, la luta continua. The struggle continues.
(Ravi Nair is Executive Director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre).