Vigil Human Rights Diary - November 2011

The fracas at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth over a proposal to appoint a human rights monitor has reopened an old debate that pits national sovereignty against an international human rights regime.  India and Sri Lanka were among the countries that opposed the idea of a Human Rights Commissioner for the Commonwealth nations.  The proposal has been given up, at least for now.  The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is possibly the finest document of the world’s aspiration to treat all human beings equally and with dignity.  Even though the UDHR was assailed from the beginning by some as a western construct that ignored cultural and religious differences, most countries, including India, are signatories to it and its various covenants.  What really undermines the international rights framework is the perception that the international human rights mechanisms are a weapon in the hands of powerful countries to lord it over less powerful states, through economic sanctions or other means.  The perception is strengthened by the flagrant double standards in the way rights issues are raised.  For instance, Australia and the United Kingdom, in the forefront of the Commonwealth human rights campaigns are quite content to ignore alleged violations in China or India, where their own interests – principally economic ones – are involved.  Canada is outraged by rights violations during Sri Lanka’s military victory over the LTTE, but is quiet about the appalling toll of civilian deaths in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Another eye-opener has been in the western handling of the Arab Spring in Libya on the one hand, and in Bahrain on the other.

It is for this reason that India – which has resisted cultural and religious exceptionalism to human rights at the United Nations – was correct in opposing the Commonwealth’s efforts to impose another layer of international scrutiny into the conduct of member states.  This is not to give a clean bill of health to the Indian record: in some places, such as Jammu & Kashmir, in the North-East, and in areas hit by the Maoist insurgency, the shocking and repeated instances of rights violations by the security forces are a blot on the country’s democratic credentials.  But outside intervention cannot be the answer.  Aside from enabling external actors with unclean hands to assume control of governance, it often ends up discrediting local efforts to improve the situation.  It is understandable that the Commonwealth, a grouping of former British colonies, is striving to remain relevant in the present day.  Meddling in the affairs of member-states, whether it is Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, or India or Zimbabwe, is not the way to go about it.

The Hindu, November 2, 2011

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