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Human Rights: INDIA REVIEWS, BUT NOT WITHIN, By Dr S Saraswathi, 10 Dec, 2013 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 10 December 2013

Human Rights 


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Asian Centre for Human Rights, in a report issued recently has observed that India’s performance in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has improved in terms of participation and contributions of comments and reviews. The improvement has been noted in the expansion of its attention geographically. It’s a review of a reviewer.


UPR is the mechanism of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) to scrutinize human rights records of all the Member-States of the UN. It was instituted in 2008. In the first cycle between 2008 and 11, India participated in the deliberations on 107 countries and refrained from doing so in the cases of 84 countries. It made 38 recommendations pertaining to 28 countries out of which 16 were from Europe.


In the second cycle which started in 2012, India, so far is said to have reviewed the performance of 55 countries and has made 37 recommendations to 19 countries.  In this, the focus is enlarged so as to include several Asian countries including the criticism and the report of the Sri Lankan Commission of Enquiry “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation.”  The issue of freedom of religion has been raised with France, Germany and the Netherlands.


This periodical exercise of review of the track record in human rights of other countries in a general way actually puts the reviewer in an embarrassing situation. For, no country can boast of a clean record of its own performance in the field of human rights and confidently conduct the role of a critic of the performance of other members of international fraternity.


Human rights encompass a variety of political, economic, and social rights besides many individual rights that are universally applicable.  According to a UN definition given in 1987, “human rights are those rights which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot live as human beings.” Like fundamental freedoms, they “allow us to fully develop and use our human qualities, our intelligence, our talents and our conscience and to satisfy our spiritual and other needs”.


What is “inherent in our nature” is a debatable subject matter. It may differ as they grow from different historical, geographic, economic, and cultural factors. Indeed, the universality of human rights beyond the realm of physical care, comfort, and human dignity is itself questioned at times.


However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948 adopted by the UN assures the universality, indivisibility, and interdependence of all rights – political, civil, social, cultural, or economic.  Vienna Declaration of 1993 confirms this and established the UNHRC. The UDHR contains 30 main articles governing political rights and individual freedoms, minimum standard of living, and international recognition of some collective rights.


Several international conventions have mentioned certain specific human rights. Among these are the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1979, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989.


To be indicted for violation of human rights is resented normally by any country.  It is shameful in the eyes of the world. At the same time, it is really difficult for every country – developed, developing and under-developed – to be irreproachable in safeguarding human rights. It is not just a question of affordability economically or assertion of political authority. 


Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that economic growth, along with educational growth is a powerful means of improving the status of human rights in the context of expansion of the contents of these rights. But, it should be added that political motivations of affluent countries/groups can and do lead to violation of human rights in the name of democracy and freedom.


Development is another factor that often turns unfriendly to human rights. This can be seen in development-induced displacement, forced eviction and relocation, land acquisitions, etc., that intrude into many facets of normal life of millions of people. It follows that no country has an impeccable record of its own performance to sit in judgement over the performance of other countries in safeguarding human rights.


Human rights are considered sacrosanct since they can promote desirable human values.  They are not means to achieve anything but are goals – ends in themselves. They have existed before the birth of the State and Government.  Our problem relates to identifying the rights that are non-controversial and are universally applicable.


Culture shapes the attitude of individuals and groups to view the human rights. Whether cultural relativism can be taken into account in determining the universality of human rights is not an easy question.  Many beliefs – political, religious, ethical, etc. - are rooted in culture. Tremendous efforts are required to change beliefs inconsistent with the prescriptions of human rights.


It is sometimes argued that western human rights principles are based on individualism and are unsuited to Asian countries which give priority to communities/groups over individual interests. In countries like India, social justice is a cornerstone of good governance while personal freedom is the foundation for all other freedoms in some democracies.


It had been an uphill task to firmly establish the right to food, housing, healthcare and such social and economic welfare measures as inalienable human rights in the face of opposition from some countries which believe in absolutely competitive economic order. The UN Commission on Human Settlement had faced opposition from the US in pushing forward the principle of the right to shelter. These instances highlight the scope for different viewpoints in asserting human rights.


However, India cannot remain complacent to violations of human rights going on in this country despite a number of protective and progressive laws and an efficient judicial system. A wide gap between legal situation and actual conditions is noticeable. In many cases, there is no justification or a reasonable ground for lapses.


Child marriage, bonded labour, manual scavenging, lingering practices of “untouchability”, and gender discriminations, for instance, are gross violations of human rights perpetrated in this country. They have to be eliminated totally. The issue of human rights is not confined to international relations or to incidents during military or civil war. These are very much part of normal, daily life without which democracy and constitutional freedoms will remain mere documents.


India has built a good record of protecting human rights in its external relations. War prisoners, refugees, and even illegal migrants find a friendly home in India. But, internally, we have to fight a lot of social evils that are ingrained in our institutions. The country has to address internal human rights issues so as to improve its credibility in judging others. ---- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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