When India joins the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member in January 2021, it will confront a range of issues. How can the UN help wind down conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, while ensuring humanitarian aid for civilians and justice for wrongdoers? How can it protect refugees fleeing these and many other conflicts? How to address the human rights impact, including structural racism and inequality, of the coronavirus pandemic?
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres for his reluctance to rebuke powerful countries such as China, Russia, or the United States (US) for their human rights violations. In response, he initiated a “Call to Action on Human Rights” aimed at urging the UN and member-states to focus more attention on growing rights challenges.
People facing oppression around the world will have high expectations of India to firmly defend their rights. The Indian government has said that on the Council, it would “act as a voice of reason and moderation and a firm believer in respect for international law.”
Unfortunately, India’s record on promoting respect for rights abroad is poor. At the UN Human Rights Council, India has usually abstained on country-specific resolutions. It has failed to support UN initiatives to address Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya or Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war”.
India has, at times, spoken, whether to support a call for accountability for alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka in the past, or recently, when it said that concerns around rights protections in Hong Kong should be considered “properly, seriously and objectively”.
Human rights abuses are typically either a cause or effect of international crises on the Security Council’s agenda. India is a significant contributor of UN peacekeepers to missions around the world and has aspirations of becoming a permanent member of an expanded Security Council. UN peacekeeping missions increasingly focus on monitoring, investigating, and reporting human rights abuses in post-conflict situations. India should demonstrate leadership and support, expanding such efforts.
To stand for rights abroad, India should also address its record at home. While it has long contrasted its more open society with China’s one-party authoritarian State, the government has recently emulated some of China’s restrictions.
India’s large number of capricious Internet shutdowns puts it in league with Myanmar, Iran, and Zimbabwe. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that Internet communication is a fundamental freedom, access remains restricted in Jammu and Kashmir. Even during a lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19, when the Internet has become the primary means of information, communication, entertainment, education, and business, the authorities have not relented.
Nor did the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement around the world, after police in the US killed George Floyd, have a noticeable impact in India. The Indian police continued their longstanding practice of torturing suspects, resulting recently in the deaths of a father and son for keeping their electronics shop open longer than Covid-19 lockdown rules allowed. The authorities remain silent on the need to protect marginalised groups at home.
While on international platforms, leaders like to speak of India’s feisty civil society, its independent media, and other democratic institutions, these, too, have suffered severe setbacks. Numerous activists are in jail or facing politically-motivated charges for expressing critical views of the government. The authorities recently opposed 80-year-old activist Varavara Rao’s bail, saying that he was seeking “undue benefit,” on account of “Covid-19 and his old age”.
India’s constitutional protections are in decline, including in its commitment to secularism. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and their followers have repeatedly stigmatised Muslims.
When Indians protested the government’s discriminatory citizenship policies, the authorities hit back hard. Like US President Donald Trump, who has described anti-racism protesters as “thugs” or Chinese authorities who said that the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were the first signs of “terrorism”, some ruling party politicians have described peaceful protesters as “traitors”. The police not only used excessive force and failed to protect protesters but, in some cases, joined in the attacks. But far from holding the police to account, the authorities have instead arrested peaceful protesters.
India appears to be at a crossroads. When it joins the UNSC, it will have a choice: Align with rights-respecting countries or make common cause with countries such as China, Russia and Brazil that are trying to tear down the global rules-based legal system that has human rights at its core. With a pivotal US election in November, an increasingly belligerent China, and a world in twin health and economic crises, early 2021 will be a key moment for India to align itself with those who support rights, not those who undermine them.