Peer-review of human rights
This month, India asked Germany to stop violence against refugees, told Canada to prevent ‘terrorists’ from being glorified as martyrs and even suggested to Russia that it should strengthen powers for human rights commissioners.
All of this was not unsolicited advice but imparted as part of the process of the universal periodic review (UPR) in the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The peer-based periodic scrutiny of human rights records is done during sessions of the UPR working group that meets thrice a year. Fourteen countries are reviewed during each session, and any other state can give their views and recommendations for improvement during the interactive dialogue.
During the last UPR working group session that ended on May 18, India took part in the interactive dialogue for 13 out of 14 countries. The only country for which India did not provide any suggestions was Tuvalu.
Bangladesh was the only South Asian country to be featured in this session. In a statement peppered with words like “praiseworthy” and “appreciate”, India made only one recommendation for Dhaka. New Delhi counselled that Bangladesh should “continue to invest in ICT for its large youth population with a view to ensuring a better standard of living”.
In contrast, most of Bangladesh’s 251 recommendations from fellow UN member states ranged from implementing the Chittagong hill tracts peace pact, ensuring a free and fair election, stopping attacks on journalists and bloggers and providing a political space for all stakeholders.
The positive pat on the back for Bangladesh was a mirror of its previous “strong appreciation” of the Sheikh Hasina government in 2013 during the second UPR cycle.
India’s complimentary remarks for Bangladesh was in contrast to more sharp and specific recommendations made for Canada and Germany.
Canada got six recommendations from India. Reduce the “high levels of poverty, food insecurity” of aboriginal people and “remove all discriminatory practices against First Nations Children in access to health, educational and social supports and services,” suggested India’s deputy permanent representative to UN in Geneva, Virander Paul.
But it was the last item which reflected New Delhi’s main peeve with Canada. “Strengthen framework to prevent misuse of freedom of expression to incite violence and glorify terrorists as martyrs,” the senior Indian diplomat told the Canadian delegation.
To both Canada and Germany, India also asked for an end to “discriminatory” racial profiling.
In February 2017, a UNHRC panel had claimed that persons of African origin in Germany suffered “institutional racism and racist stereotyping by the criminal justice system”.
In Geneva, Germany faced a grilling from fellow UN member states on attacks on asylum seekers, racism and hate speech.
India specifically suggested that Germany should “prevent threats and violence against migrants and implement the Integration Act of 2016 for their better integration through non-discriminatory measures”.
There had been a rise in hate crime against refugees and migrants, after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome people fleeing conflict and persecution, especially from Syria, sharply polarised German society and politics.
As per the latest figures from the German federal statistics office, about one in every eight in Germany is a foreign national. While the political volatility has been over the 1.6 million asylum seekers, largely from the Middle East and Africa, the rise in the number of foreigners was largely due to the flood of migrants from eastern Europe.
During the largely ritualised interactive dialogue between states during the UPR process, India also proposed that Germany should continue efforts in “integration of minority communities by enhancing their access to housing, education, employment and healthcare”.
There was a similar suggestion to extend benefits to minorities from India to Russia during its UPR process. The Indian statement dwelled more on positive developments in Russia compared to its recommendations, unlike with Germany and Canada. Also, all the Indian suggestions were framed in language to indicate that Russia was already taking those steps.
We recommend that Russia:
– Continue further strengthening of the posts of the Commissioners, particularly that for Human Rights;
– Continue implementation of the national strategy on action for women with a view to promoting gender equality;
– Continue extending social support measures and benefits to minorities
Last year, India also went through the same process of review of her human rights record for the third time.
Canada specifically asked New Delhi to remove discriminatory anti-conversion state laws, guarantee freedom of expression, protect religious minorities and revoke Section 377.
Both Russia and Germany recommended that India should ratify the international convention against torture. Besides, German also criticised India for its restrictions on access to foreign funding for civil society groups and harassment of human rights defenders. Russia had also suggested that India should “strengthen efforts for the prevention of cases of intercommunal violence”.
Bangladesh had not made any recommendations for India.
There has been criticism that the UPR process has not really helped bring about substantial change in the human rights records of states.
The only time that India’s statement in UPR process had led to some protest by another state was in 2015. Nepal was already smarting from the border ‘blockade’ – and when India raised “continuing incidents of violence, extra-judicial killings and ethnic discrimination in the country”, the sting was sharper.
An academic study of the UPR process, based on the case study of Nepal’s experience, published last November, also highlighted that India’s statement was an aberration among Asian states to spend more time on positive developments.
An exception to the rule was the input from India, which compared to the first cycle review was considered to be very critical and did not take time to recognize positive developments, the likely reason being an ongoing crisis in the relations between Nepal and India. (Journal of Human Rights Practice)
The analysis found that that the Global North spent less time on average on “courteous introductions” and “positive developments” compared to the Global South. Within the developing countries, Asian states spend more time on recognition and least on recommendations. For example, more than one minute of China’s statement on Nepal was spent on appreciating ‘positive’ developments, with just 22 seconds on recommendations.
Covering the world
Two years ago, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj promised that India’s diplomats would “cover the entire world by the end of 2016”. While it was an ambitious plan – in equal parts aimed at forging new diplomatic ties and an attempt at showmanship that is characteristic of the Narendra Modi government – 12 months wasn’t enough to finish wrapping up visits to 192 nations. But now, finally, two years later, the end is in sight.
In 2016, there were 65 countries which had not seen any ministerial visits from India. When MEA’s minister of state V.K. Singh’s flight landed at Pyongyang airport on May 15, Swaraj checked off the 185th country on her ministry’s list.
When she meets the press on May 28 for her ministry’s annual press meet, she will be able to count the number of countries left on her fingertips. The countries that are left, sources say, are largely in the Pacific, Latin America and Africa.
Hindi above the 38th parallel
On the topic of North Korea, when a three-member Indian ministerial delegation landed in the capital after a gap of 20 years, one of the surprises awaiting them was to a group of Hindi speakers.
India decided to send the minister of state to travel to North Korea after witnessing the sudden lessening in DPRK’s diplomatic isolation over the last month. After months of sabre-rattling, the Donald Trump administration’s surprising about-turn meant that the Korean peninsula had turned into a hotbed of diplomatic activity. India, naturally, felt that it needed to visibly keep its foot in the door.
Sources said that India needed to remind its North Korean hosts that it had never snapped diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, despite international pressure and worldwide ostracism. This reminder was necessary, India assessed, as it would help to get contracts once North Korea did start to open up and modernise, one day.
No one would have guessed that North Korean officials would be issuing a strong statement criticising the US and its national security advisor for suggesting the ‘Libya model’ on the morning of the main day of Singh’s visit.
Sources familiar with the experiences of the ministerial delegation said that they described a city of Soviet-style grandiose architecture, but frozen in time in the 1980s.
While the formal conversation with DPRK officials did not go beyond Korean, the Indian delegation was surprised to find many Hindi speakers among their interlocutors. And they spoke a Hindi which was so ‘pure’ that even the delegation members had to strain themselves to understand it.
In conversations and discussions, the North Koreans worked in references to the non-alignment movement, old Bollywood movies and Indira Gandhi. Their frame of cultural reference for India appeared to be stuck in the 1970s and 1980s.
It was apparently like meeting an old friend from one’s small town or village who had not changed at all.
While the Indian delegation wasn’t able to reach out and or connect with North Korean citizens, members did observe that the civic infrastructure in the capital was impressive, with wide roads of ten lanes. However, there were not many cars, with most Pyongyang denizens travelling by bus or cycle. Internet and cell phone services were limited, with frequent electricity cuts.