Meenakshi Ganguly

As soon as India assumed the rotating presidency at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) this month, the government had the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to human rights.

With violence escalating in Syria, where nearly a 150 people were killed by government security forces last week, India recently successfully took the lead in determining an international response.

The Security Council issued a unanimous statement condemning “the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities”.

During her recent visit to India, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton remarked that “India is taking its rightful place in the meeting rooms and conference halls where the world’s most consequential questions are debated and decided.” She followed this with a warning that, along with this role, India also has “increasing responsibilities, including the duty to speak out against violations of universal human rights”.

And this includes that duty to speak out when a government violates its own responsibility to ensure justice over abuses.

For instance, Human Rights Watch recently called on the US government to open criminal investigations into allegations of detainee abuse authorised by senior Bush administration officials.

Former US President George W. Bush, his vice-president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet were named for ordering “waterboarding”, secret CIA prisons and the transfer of detainees to countries where they were tortured.

Impunity for serious human rights violations cannot be accepted in the US or anywhere else. Victims deserve justice and India should call upon the US government to ensure that the law is upheld regardless of the perpetrator.

India’s new responsibility as a global leader also means that India must ensure its own practices respect fundamental human rights. And here it is time for deeds, not more politically correct words.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly said that the government will show “zero tolerance” towards violations, and yet killings by security forces, torture and other serious abuses persist.

The police continue to arbitrarily arrest or torture terror suspects or alleged Maoists in central India — even killing people and falsely claiming that they died in an armed exchange. The threat of terrorism is too often used to justify abuses. The abusers are rarely identified publicly or punished.

In the US, President Barack Obama has yet to investigate and prosecute those responsible for planning and authorising abuses, but he took a number of important steps to promote human rights, including banning torture. While we cannot be certain that all torture has ended, it is no longer official practice.

This shows that leadership on human rights can make a difference, particularly when the military, intelligence and security forces respect civilian control and the chain of command.

The Indian government, on the other hand, has failed to open criminal investigations into numerous credible allegations of serious abuses in Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur, where soldiers have, for decades, operated with impunity, protected by laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

Both political leaders and human rights activists have long urged a repeal of the law, but despite Dr Singh’s promise that the law would be scrapped if found to violate rights, Army opposition has stalled any action.

Instead of being annoyed by international criticism, India should end the immunity from prosecution it provides to members of its security forces, investigate allegations of violations and hold those found responsible to account.

It should no longer mistakenly view those who criticise abuses as the enemy. At the same time, it needs to make every effort to identify those behind heinous crimes, such as the recent bombings in Mumbai or the killing of so-called informers by Maoists in western Maharashtra, and bring them to justice.

By doing the right thing at home, India will also set an example for other countries in the region. The Sri Lankan government, for example, maintains its shrill and increasingly unbelievable arguments about the conduct of its forces in the final months of the war against the Tamil Tigers.

The Indian government should also support efforts to create an international commission of inquiry to look into serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Burma.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch published Dead Men Walking, a report documenting how the new — ostensibly civilian — government in Burma forces convicts to work as porters in deadly battle zones under horrendous conditions, using them as “human shields” in heavily mined areas. Twenty years ago, India led calls for democracy in Burma, yet it now pursues a race to the bottom with China to curry favour with the Burmese military and gain access to the country’s energy resources.

India’s policies should instead indicate an unwavering commitment to human rights and seek accountability for abuses — whether committed by the US, Sri Lanka or Syria, by Indian security forces or separatist groups. These are the principles that should be at the heart of domestic and foreign policy and be reflected in India’s decisions as it assumes the UNSC’s presidency.

Indeed, India should be at the forefront of efforts to make justice the norm, instead of the exception, around the globe. As Ms Clinton said in New Delhi, “This is a time to seize the opportunities of the 21st century, and it is a time to lead.”

Meenakshi Ganguly is the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch