UN intervention

Global concern

Print edition : March 27, 2020

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. Photo: Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

The United Nations human rights body intervenes forcefully against the violence in Delhi, and Western and Muslim countries raise serious concern about the Indian government’s recent actions.

The recent communal bloodletting in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, facilitated by sections of the government machinery, has finally made the international community wake up and question the the powers that be about accountability. For the first time since India’s Independence, a United Nations body has chosen to intervene forcefully on a domestic human rights issue. U.N. bodies, including the Security Council, did not raise a hue and cry when in August 2019 the Narendra Modi government at the Centre abrogated Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and turned the Kashmir Valley into a virtual open-air prison. But the nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Population Register and the violence unleashed by the state and the foot soldiers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have been the last straw for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and other international organisations.

In early March, Michelle Bachelet, the UNHCHR chief, announced that the U.N. body was submitting an amicus curiae intervention in India’s Supreme Court. The court is hearing a petition by the retired diplomat Deb Mukherjee and others challenging the constitutional validity of the CAA. Mukherjee had served as India’s Ambassador to Bangladesh and Nepal and has an abiding affection for the region and its people. Michelle Bachelet had served two terms as Chile’s President. A socialist, she fled Chile when the country was taken over by the brutal military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Her father, an air force general, was arrested and tortured by the Pinochet regime. He died in prison.

The Indian government has strongly opposed Michelle Bachelet’s amicus curiae petition. The government and sections of the legal fraternity argue that if the Supreme Court allows such an intervention, it will open the floodgates for similar litigation by foreign states and organisations. The External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said India “is a democratic country governed by the rule of law”. Michelle Bachelet, on the other hand, maintains that what she has done is nothing unusual. She said that she and her predecessors had “filed amicus curiae briefs on issues of particular public importance within proceedings before a diverse range of international and national jurisdictions”. These included the European Court of Human Rights, the International Criminal Courts, the United States Supreme Court and many superior courts in Asia and Latin America.

Michelle Bachelet said that her decision to intervene stemmed from reports by various U.N. human rights treaty bodies that the CAA was a discriminatory document that did not recognise the plight of persecuted minorities such as Shias, Hazaras and Ahmadis in the Indian subcontinent. She said that the preferential treatment envisaged for selected religious groups ran contrary to India’s obligations under international human rights law.

The Indian government’s recent actions have come in for strong criticism in the West. The U.S. Congress, the United Kingdom’s Parliament, the European Parliament and other legislative forums have highlighted the shortcomings of the Indian government in its handling of protests relating to the CAA and the abrogation of Article 370. In the first week of March, Members of Parliament cutting across party lines criticised the Indian government’s role in the riots that erupted in Delhi during the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump.

A junior U.K. Minister, Nigel Adams, standing in for Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, said that human rights was “at the core of our foreign policy”. There was criticism of Trump’s “silence” on the issue during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite a section of the capital being drawn into a vortex of violence. Some British MPs claimed that Trump was deeply interested in trade and defence deals and hence his muted reaction. “I can guarantee you that we’ll not pursue trade at the expense of human rights,” the Minister said. He said that the U.K. was closely monitoring the situation in India. The British government has told Parliament that it believes that the CAA is divisive and has raised concerns with the Indian authorities about its impact.

The European Parliament is due to debate the CAA issue and vote on a resolution that is critical of the CAA by the end of March. Only the extreme right-wing parties that are openly Islamophobic are supportive of India’s handling of the emotive population census. The resolution describes the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. One political grouping went to the extent of saying that the controversial Act had the potential to create “the largest statelessness crisis in the world”.

For that matter, the U.S. State Department released a statement in late 2019 urging the Modi government to protect the rights of minorities “according to the Constitution and democratic values” of India. The statement said that “respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law” are the basic tenets of “our two democracies”. The bipartisan U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee made a similar statement emphasising the “shared core values” of the two countries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) used tougher language. It said that the basis for changing the criteria for citizenship “was a dangerous turn in the wrong direction”. It stated that if the Citizenship Bill was passed, it would seek to sanction Home Minister Amit Shah. The USCIRF, a bipartisan government entity, had played a key role in the imposition of a travel ban on Modi when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

“The Indian government must take swift action to ensure the safety of all its citizens. Instead, reports are mounting that the Delhi police have not intervened in violent attacks against Muslims and the government is failing in its duty to protect its citizens. These incidents are even more concerning in the context of efforts within India to target and potentially disenfranchise Muslims across the country, in clear violation of international human rights standards,” the USCIRF Commissioner, Anurima Bhargava, said.

As long as Trump remains in power, there is no likelihood of a serious reaction from Washington. Trump needs Modi as an ally in the geopolitical games he is playing with China and the “maximum pressure” tactics he is using against Iran. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate in the presidential primaries, had no such compunction. “Over 200 million Muslims call India home,” Sanders tweeted, blaming Trump for “his failure on leadership in human rights”. Elizabeth Warren, who was another Democratic candidate, whose son-in-law is an Indian, criticised Trump for his silence. She said that the U.S. “must speak truthfully about our values, including religious freedom and freedom of expression, and violence against peaceful protesters is never acceptable”.

Muslim nations have also been raising their concern with the Indian government. Many of them prefer to do so under the radar, but important countries such as Iran and Turkey have openly registered their protest. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the wave “of organised violence” against Muslims.

He requested the Indian government to ensure the safety and security of all its citizens and not let “senseless thuggery prevail”.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking after the recent incidents in Delhi, said that India had now become known “as a land of massacres” and that those carrying out the killings belonged to the majority community. The Indonesian government demanded an explanation from the Indian Ambassador in Jakarta after the events in the last week of February. Indonesia is the most populous Islamic country. In its latest statement, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) has urged India to help prevent the desecration of Islamic holy places. “OIC condemns the recent and alarming violence against Muslims in India, resulting in the deaths and injury of innocent people and the arson and vandalism of mosques and Muslim owned properties,” read the OIC statement.