(New Delhi) - India and the United States should make human rights a central focus of talks during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India, Human Rights Watch said today. Clinton is leading a 25-member delegation for an India-US Strategic Dialogue with an Indian delegation led by Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, which begins on July 19, 2011.
The Indian foreign ministry has said the dialogue is expected to focus on strategic cooperation, energy and climate change, education and development, economy, trade and agriculture, science and technology, and health and innovation. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that human rights issues do not appear to be on the agenda.
"The US and India have plenty to discuss, but it's incomprehensible that human rights isn't on the agenda," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Human rights issues in both countries, as well as other countries like Burma where abuses are rampant, can hardly be ignored by the world's two largest democracies."
Human Rights Watch called upon the Indian government to raise the Obama administration's failure to investigate allegations of torture and other serious abuses by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials, as detailed in a recent Human Rights Watch report.
Clinton should likewise press the Indian government on its persistent human rights problems, including the failure to hold abusive members of the security forces accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
"Human rights violations should be prosecuted wherever they occur and whoever is responsible," Ganguly said. "India and the US should address accountability for abuses in both countries, but also work together to ensure justice in places like Burma, Sri Lanka, and Syria."
Human Rights Watch also urged Clinton to raise with India the country's excessive restrictions on civil society, infringements on the right to freedom of expression, and the need to protect the rights of women, Dalits, and other vulnerable groups. The Indian government has frequently promised to improve its human rights record, including with pledges in support of its candidacy for the United Nations Human Rights Council, but implementation has lagged.
"The US has a strong relationship with the Indian government, but it shouldn't ignore the millions of ordinary Indians whose rights are at risk," Ganguly said. "The victims of human rights abuses should not be airbrushed out of the relationship."
For detailed recommendations, see below.
Human Rights Concerns in India That Secretary Clinton Should Raise:
Accountability for Human Rights Abuses: When it presented its candidacy for the Human Rights Council, India pledged to uphold the highest standards to promote and protect human rights. However, a culture of impunity that protects public officials from prosecution for violating human rights stands in the way of fully realizing that commitment. The Criminal Code and several other laws require government permission to prosecute any government official. This requirement has prevented proper accountability for human rights violations such as arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings by the police, paramilitary, and the army. India should:
- Repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides immunity to soldiers responsible for serious human rights violations and has led to widespread violations and suffering in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeastern states where it remains in force. India should also encourage the government of Jammu and Kashmir to repeal the Public Safety Act, which has been used to hold hundreds of people in arbitrary detention.
- Revise the overly broad and vague definition of terrorism under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and repeal provisions such as expanded police powers of search and seizure, the presumption of guilt under certain circumstances, and draconian pre-charge detention periods.
- Enact the pending Prevention of Torture Bill, revising it to conform with the international Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Provisions in the proposed law to grant officials effective immunity from prosecution should be eliminated.
- Encourage each state government to embark upon reforms to professionalize the police forces, both to improve their working conditions and to hold them accountable for human rights violations. The government should codify the full set of guidelines for police officers on arrest and detention in the landmark 1997 Supreme Court case of D.K. Basu. It should sign into law criminal procedure amendments, already passed by parliament, requiring the police to record a formal reason for making a warrantless arrest. The amendments would close a glaring legal loophole that fuels impunity.
The Status of Civil Society and Protection for Freedom of Expression: India has pledged to "foster genuine participation and effective involvement of civil society in promoting and protecting human rights." However, changes are needed to laws and legal codes that infringe on public discourse and the right to free expression. India should:
- Repeal all provisions of amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act that do not conform to international standards and potentially undermine the work of nongovernmental organizations. While these organizations should be held accountable under law, laws already exist to prevent financial misdeeds and to ensure that no group acts as a front for abusive non-state armed groups. To ensure that nongovernmental organizations can make crucial and necessary contribution to the country's development, the government should, as a priority, develop a legal framework that safeguards freedom of association, including the ability of these groups to seek and receive funding.
- Protect citizens' right to freedom of expression by repealing archaic sedition laws that have been used to silence dissent.
- Take immediate steps to strengthen and reduce politicization of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) by requiring a transparent appointments process that includes public hearings and participation by civil society groups. Require state human rights commissions to report back to the commission on actions they intend to take on complaints the commission forwards to them for review. The aim of the human rights commissions should be to improve mechanisms for citizens to seek redress and to hold government officials accountable for human rights abuses.
The Rights of Women, Dalits and Other Vulnerable Groups: India has vowed to "support domestic and international processes that seek to advance women's rights, gender equality and the rights of the child." To carry out that pledge, India should:
- Ensure that children detained for alleged participation in violent protests, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, are not arbitrarily detained or held jail in violation of juvenile justice laws.
- Enforce the government directive preventing state security forces from occupying and using schools as long-term outposts, which results in continued disruption of education.
- Act promptly to rebuild schools that are bombed or otherwise attacked by Maoist insurgents.
- Reduce maternal mortality by enforcing guidelines for investigating maternal deaths and by ending disparities or discrimination in access to maternal health services.
- Curb violence against women by providing services for survivors in one-stop crisis centers. The proposed law to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace should be expanded to include domestic workers, and enacted.
- Repeal Section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes consensual sex between adults of the same sex.
- Take immediate steps to eliminate abuses against Dalits, tribal groups, religious minorities, and other marginalized communities, provide concrete plans to carry out laws and government policies to protect them, and monitor development programs that have largely failed to reach target groups. The government should make certain that vulnerable groups get the full protection guaranteed under Indian and international law against forced evictions of communities without adequate rehabilitation and compensation to make way for mining, industrial, or infrastructure projects.
Human Rights Problems in Other Countries: India should use its considerable global influence to address human rights problems in other countries and, as a member of the Human Rights Council, assert leadership in promoting human rights at the council. In the past, India has often opposed strong international action to address serious human rights problems in specific countries. India's growing regional and global influence should be matched by an increasing commitment to protect human rights abroad.