Dr. Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister of India
Re: India's election to the UN Human Rights Council and human rights commitments
Dear Prime Minister,
Congratulations on India's election to the United Nations Human Rights Council. UN General Assembly resolution 60/251 states that members of the Human Rights Council "shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and "fully cooperate with the Council." We believe it essential that countries that are members of the Human Rights Council adhere to these criteria.
India has made significant pledges outlining its human rights record and voluntary commitments. In meeting those pledges and commitments, Human Rights Watch asks your government to implement the following changes in India's laws and policies to better protect and promote human rights.
Ensuring Accountability for Human Rights Abuses
When it presented its candidacy to the Human Rights Council, India pledged to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. However, the current culture of impunity that protects public officials from prosecution for violating human rights stands in the way of fully realizing that commitment. Indian law requires government permission to initiate prosecutions against any government official, under the Criminal Code and several other laws. This has prevented proper accountability for human rights violations such as arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings by the police, paramilitary, and the army. We urge India to:
- Repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has led to widespread violations and suffering in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeastern states where it remains in force. Soldiers found responsible for serious human rights violations remain unaccountable because of immunity provided under this law. 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, but only after ensuring it conforms with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The law should not include any provisions that would grant officials effective immunity from prosecution.
- 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 on arrest and detention for police officers that are contained 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-thereby closing a glaring legal loophole that fuels impunity.
Strengthening Civil Society and Freedom of Expression
Among India's commitments to the General Assembly was a pledge to "foster genuine participation and effective involvement of the civil society in the promotion and protection of human rights." However, certain legislation and legal codes currently infringe upon civil society's ability to freely engage in public discourse and upon individuals' right to free expression. In order to fulfill this commitment, the Indian government 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 (NGOs). While NGOs should be held accountable under law, laws already exist that can prevent financial misdeeds and to ensure that no group is acting as a front to support human rights abuses by non-state armed groups. In order to ensure that NGOs can make their crucial and necessary contribution to the country's development, the government should make it a priority to develop a legal framework that safeguards freedom of association, including the ability of NGOs to seek and receive funding.
- Protect citizens' right to freedom of expression by repealing archaic sedition laws that are being 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 from civil society groups. Require state human rights commissions to report back to the NHRC on actions they intend to take on complaints the NHRC forwards to them for review. The aim of the human rights commissions should be to improve mechanisms for citizens to seek redress and hold government officials accountable for human rights abuses.
Protecting the Rights of Women and Other Vulnerable Groups
In its voluntary pledges, India vowed to "support domestic and international processes that seek to advance women's rights, gender equality and the rights of the child." In meeting that pledge, India should:
- Ensure that children detained for alleged participation in the 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 maternal death investigation, and by ending disparities or discrimination in access to maternal health services.
- Act to end violence against women by providing services for victim-survivors of violence through one-stop crisis centers. The proposed law to prevent sexual harassment at 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 implement laws and government policies to secure the their protection, and monitor development programs that have largely failed to reach target groups. The government should ensure all protections under Indian and international law against forced evictions of communities without adequate rehabilitation and compensation to make way for mining, industrial, or infrastructure projects.
Finally we very much hope that India will use its considerable global influence to address human rights problems in other countries and, as a member of the Human Rights Council, to assert leadership in the promotion of 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.
Human Rights Watch once again welcomes India to the Human Rights Council. We look forward to working with you and your colleagues to further the protection and promotion of human rights as India takes a seat on the council.
Director, Asia Division
Juliette de Rivero
CC: H.E. Mr. Hardeep Singh Puri, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations
H.E. Mr. Achamkulangare Gopinathan, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva