External Affairs

Under Fire for Rohingya Deportation Policy, India Criticises UNHRC Chief

Enforcing the laws in the case of illegal migrants should not be mistaken for lack of compassion, India’s envoy said.

New Delhi: India on Tuesday (September 12) criticised the UN high commissioner for human rights’ “tendentious judgment” after Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein accused New Delhi of lacking “basic human compassion” in seeking to deport Rohingya refugees and also raised the recent murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh.

India’s response came a day after Al Hussein’s opening statement at the 36th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on Monday. The UNHRC chief was specifically targeting the statements of the minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju who had earlier lashed out against international human rights groups for criticising the government’s plans to deport around 40,000 Rohingya refugees from India.

“I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country,” said Al Hussein on September 11. He noted that out of the 40,000 Rohingyas settled in India, 16,000 had been registered as refugees.

The Indian government had started to make noises about the deportation of Rohingya refugees just before a terrorist attack by Rohingya militants led to a massive security crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. However, even after the scale of the refugee crisis became apparent, the government has continued to express its right to deport Rohingya refugees.

“The minister of state for home affairs has reportedly said that because India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the country can dispense with international law on the matter, together with basic human compassion,” said the UNHRC chief.

He noted that India cannot carry out deportations of Rohingyas as per international law. “[By] virtue of customary law, its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the obligations of due process and the universal principle of non-refoulement, India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violation,” he said.

UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein. Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

India’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Rajeev Chander said that India was “perplexed at some of the observations made by the high commissioner in his oral update.”

He complained there was “inadequate appreciation of the freedoms and rights that are guaranteed and practiced daily in a vibrant democracy that has been built under challenging conditions.”

“Tendentious judgments made on the basis of selective and even inaccurate reports do not further the understanding of human rights in any society,” asserted Chander.

Addressing the specific issue of Rohingya deportation, he said, “Like many other nations, India is concerned about illegal migrants, in particular, with the possibility that they could pose security challenges. Enforcing the laws should not be mistaken for lack of compassion.”

The Hindu reported that Rijuju had apparently clarified on Monday that the government had not yet firmed up a plan to deport Rohingyas, but had only asked state governments to identify illegal immigrants.

India had backed Myanmar on its crackdown on “extremist action” in Rakhine but then recognised that there was a big refugee crisis under pressure from Bangladesh. So far, the UN estimates that over 370,000 Rohingyas have crossed over since August 26.

The UN human rights chief had also pulled up India on the “broader rise of intolerance towards religious and other minorities in India.”

He referred to attacks by gau rakshaks as well as the increasing cases of human rights defenders being targeted. “The current wave of violent, and often lethal, mob attacks against people under the pretext of protecting the lives of cows is alarming. People who speak out for fundamental human rights are also threatened. Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who tirelessly addressed the corrosive effect of sectarianism and hatred, was assassinated last week,” said Al Hussein.

He added that he was “heartened” by the protest marches and demonstrations called in 12 cities to protest the killing.

“Human rights defenders who work for the rights of India’s most vulnerable groups – including those threatened with displacement by infrastructure projects such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the Narmada river valley – should be considered allies in building on India’s achievements to create a stronger and more inclusive society. Instead, many are subject to harassment and even criminal proceedings, or denied protection by the state,” said the UNHRC chief.

In response, the Indian diplomat claimed that it was “surprising that individual incidents are being extrapolated to suggest a broader societal situation”. “India is proud of its independent judiciary, freedom of press, vibrant civil society and respect for rule of law and human rights,” added Chander.

On the issue of gau rakshak attacks, he stated that a “more informed view” would have noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had “himself publicly condemned violence in the name of cow protection”.

“India does not condone any actions in violation of law and imputations to the contrary are not justified,” said Chander.

To Al Hussein’s expressing regret that India and Pakistan had not engaged with his office on human rights concerns in Kashmir, Chander said, “It is a matter of regret that the central role of terrorism is once again being overlooked. Assessments of human rights should not be a matter of political convenience.”

Since both South Asian countries had not given access to Kashmir, the UNHRC chief said that his office was undertaking “remote monitoring” of the human rights situation in Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control, “with a view to making the findings public in the near future”.

In the 36th session, the Human Rights Council will consider and adopt final outcome report on the Universal Periodic Review for India, after the Indian government publishes its responses to the recommendations received in May.

“India’s UPR report will be adopted in this session of the HRC.  We are pleased to inform you that a large number of recommendations have been accepted. We believe that the UPR is not an end in itself and that observance and promotion of human rights is an ongoing process that can be continuously strengthened,” Chander said.