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‘Miles away from where we should be'

Vidya Ram
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Mr Salil Shetty, Secretary-General, Amnesty International, London.
Mr Salil Shetty, Secretary-General, Amnesty International, London.

The Indian Government must take a hard look at what is causing inequality. -- Mr Salil Shetty, Secretary-General, Amnesty International, London.

“Can India become a global leader on human rights?,” asked Mr Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of London-based NGO Amnesty International.

While the recent votes on Syria and Sri Lanka were important steps forward, India still has a long way to go when it comes to translating its economic strength into the political and foreign policy domain.

“If you see the voting patterns of the Human Rights Council or positioning on these issues, there is still a 60s and 70s way of thinking, a Cold war thinking — that if the West votes one way we'll vote another.”

This leads to a fundamental conflict, he argues. “We can't say you should have democracy and human rights in one place and if something happens elsewhere, no we cannot interfere.”

Not there yet

India needs to feel strong enough to say no, and to not tow the line no matter how the US, and the EU vote, and Russia and China, Mr Shetty, former CEO of ActionAid and Director of the UN Millennium Campaign, told Business Line in an interview.

“We need to say that we, India, Brazil, South Africa are democratic countries that have grown up with human rights as part of our framework and we are not going to accept this. But we are not there yet.”

India is not the only country to face criticism over its leadership on the international stage.

In Amnesty International's 50th report on the State of the World's Human Rights 2012 published on Wednesday, it is scathing of what it describes as a failure of global leadership to match the courage shown by protestors in the past 12 months, with opportunistic alliances and financial interests “trumping” any action on human rights.

Over the past year, India maintained a focus on economic growth, at times at the cost of human rights, the Amnesty report argues.

It points to a number of events, including the hundreds of deaths in clashes between the Maoists and security forces, the ongoing battles of Adivasi communities against corporates, and the “ire” faced by human rights campaigners.

“Many were threatened, harassed and intimated, and at least four activists were killed.”

While India had taken the positive step of a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures to visit, “torture and other ill-treatment, extra judicial executions, deaths in custody and administrative detentions remained rife in a number of states,” the report found, while initiatives to outlaw torture “had yet to yield results.”

Underlying many of these issues was “discrimination and disempowered communities and a justice system that doesn't work properly,” said Mr Shetty. “In the end it's mostly innocent civilians, or Adivasis, who die.”

He is cautiously optimistic of recent drives, including last year's push to get anti corruption legislation through Parliament. “Civil society has really raised its voice but much more of that needs to happen I'd say.”

Tapping Indian civil society

Amnesty is hoping to tap into Indian civil society further, with the July launch of its Bangalore-based India office headed by Ananthapadmanabhan Guruswamy, who founded Greenpeace in India. The organisation plans to reach out to the public both digitally and through drives in schools, universities and campuses and hopes to gain around one lakh members in the next five years.

“There are enough Indians concerned with global issues and human rights who would really want to be part of Amnesty … the possibilities are incredible,” said Mr Shetty.

Among the issues it hopes to work on further are forced evictions, rural and urban, both of which were on the increase, and showed “serious violations” of rights. “Nobody is saying you shouldn't acquire land; it's a question of how you do it, following due process,” he said.

“The global human rights standards would expect there to be prior informed consent if there was to be potential displacement but there is a whole catalogue of cases where this is not happening.”

“Time and again the people who are negatively affected are the weakest sections of the local communities and the people who are intermediaries are creaming off a lot of money. This is where it links back to the corruption issue, which though not a human rights issue makes matters worse for those whose rights are being violated.”

He argued that India was a prime example of the indivisibility and interdependence of rights.

“Amnesty has long had a debate on the issue of civil political rights and economic social and cultural rights but if you look at the Adivasis, or the dalits or minorities in India, the two are completely interconnected. People who don't have a voice are the ones who are poor. The ones who are poor don't have a voice.”

‘Knee-jerk reaction'

While absolute poverty was going down, inequality was increasing significantly, with worrying human rights implications.

“From the human rights point of view, the issue is really whether the social, economic and cultural rights of the people being met or not, and we have a long way to go on that,” he said.

“If you take of these – right to health, right to education, right to sanitation, right to adequate housing, we are miles away from where we should be.”

“The issue here is if the Indian government doesn't take a very sharp look at what is causing inequality and that is not addressed, I think we will then end up going backwards and that's the worry.”

Turning to recent government moves to increase its control over the Internet, Mr Shetty expressed his “surprise” at an action that would be “knee jerk” and self-defeating. “This just takes us into a rabbit hole. This is where India seems to be drawing inspiration from China.”

However, he ended on an optimistic note, about the prospect for progress on human rights in India, though not based on any signals shown by the government.

“The people of India will not allow the things to continue as they have. As people get more exposed to these issues they will not accept this reality.”

(This article was published on May 24, 2012)
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