Why UN human rights chief's criticism of India comes off as 'selective'

India's 'human rights violations' are in the limelight after the United Nations high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bach...

India's 'human rights violations' are in the limelight after the United Nations high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet criticised the country for pressure on journalists, use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as well as "frequent" temporary communication blackouts in Jammu and Kashmir.

In her opening statement at the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bachelet acknowledged the Indian government's efforts to counter terrorism and promote development in Jammu and Kashmir but said such "restrictive measures can result in human rights violations and foster further tensions and discontent".

Bachelet has pulled up India in the past too over its handling of the farmers' protest, restrictions on NGOs in India and the arrest of activists by the authorities.

Who is Michelle Bachelet?

VerĂ³nica Michelle Bachelet Jeria has served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2018. AFP

A former two-time president of Chile, VerĂ³nica Michelle Bachelet Jeria has served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2018.

She has also served as health minister (2000-2002) as well as Chile’s and Latin America’s first female defense minister (2002–2004).

In 2011, she was named the first Director of UN Women, an organisation dedicated to fighting for the rights of women and girls internationally.

Bachelet's Kashmir stance

The UN rights chief has been voicing her alarm over the situation in Kashmir following New Delhi's revocation of the autonomous status and the military siege of the region.

During the 2019 UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, she had said, "I am deeply concerned about the impact of recent actions by the government of India on the human rights of Kashmiris, including restrictions on internet communications and peaceful assembly, and the detention of local political leaders and activists."

The UN Human Rights chief had said it was important that the Kashmiri people were consulted and engaged in any decision-making processes that has an impact on their future.

“While I continue to urge the governments of India and Pakistan to ensure that human rights are respected and protected, I have appealed particularly to India to ease the current lockdowns or curfews; to ensure people’s access to basic services; and that all due process rights are respected for those who have been detained,” Bachelet was quoted as saying.

Kashmir was put under prohibitory orders and an unprecedented communications blackout on 4 August 2019. Prohibitory orders were lifted gradually.

She again raised the issue of Kashmir on Monday at this year's council. Speaking on the same, she said, "Ongoing use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act throughout India is worrying, with Jammu and Kashmir having among the highest number of cases in the country."

India responded to the criticism, saying people in the region were enjoying the same fundamental rights as people in other parts of India”.

India’s permanent representative Indra Mani Pandey said, "We have been able to revive grassroots democracy and provide a new momentum to social and economic development, despite the challenge posed by [the] Covid-19 pandemic and persistent attempts by one country to infiltrate terrorists to derail this process by all possible means."

NRC woes

Bachelet weighed in on the issue of the National Register of Citizens too in 2019.

She had said the NRC verification process in Assam had caused great uncertainty and anxiety.

“The recent National Register of Citizens verification process in the northeast Indian state of Assam has caused great uncertainty and anxiety, with some 1.9 million people excluded from the final list published on 31 August,” Bachelet said.

She also requested the Narendra Modi government to ensure due process during the appeals process. “I appeal to the Government to ensure due process during the appeals process, prevent deportation or detention, and ensure people are protected from statelessness,” she said.

Bachelet condemns FCRA

In 2019, Bachelet criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s new Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

"The FCRA has been invoked over the years to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organisations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies.”

She added, “I am concerned that such actions on the grounds of vaguely defined ‘public interest’ leave this law open to abuse, and that it is indeed actually being used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy that the authorities perceive as critical in nature.”

Her statement had come in the wake of the closure of the human rights organisation Amnesty International India.

She had stated that "constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Even if the authorities find it uncomfortable, it should never be criminalised or outlawed in this way".

India, Bachelet clash over farmers' protest

The unprecedented farmers' agitation at the borders of the national capital over the three farm laws also drew the attention of the UN human rights chief.

In February of this year, she had noted, "In India, continued protests by hundreds of thousands of farmers highlight the importance of ensuring laws and policies are based on meaningful consultations with those concerned. I trust that ongoing dialogue efforts by both sides (the government and the agitating farmers) will lead to an equitable solution to this crisis that respects the rights of all."

Bachelet also criticised the Modi government, stating the charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests by farmers were “disturbing departures from essential human rights principles”.

However, this time India hit back at her comments.

India’s permanent representative to UN, Indra Mani Pandey said that the farm laws will benefit small farmers and offer more choices to those farmers who opt for them. The government has shown utmost respect for protests by farmers and has remained engaged in dialogue with them to address their concerns, he said.

“Given these developments, we were perplexed to note some of the comments… she appeared as oblivious of the enormous efforts made by my government to address the challenges… The unprovoked violence on our Republic Day in the name of farmers’ rights, apparently, left her unmoved. Her indifference to terrorism is, of course, not new. Objectivity and impartiality have to be the hallmarks of any Human Rights assessment. We are sorry to see that the high commissioner’s oral update is lacking in both,” the Indian envoy had said.

Selective criticism?

The UNHRC needs to be uniform, consistent and even-handed when it comes to human rights abuse or denial of civil rights to people across the world. It is quite evident from the statements issued by the UN human rights council that there has been a selective approach to seeking accountability on civil rights from different states.

The cause of human rights is not furthered when violations by the Pakistan military in Balochistan and in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is overlooked.

Further, Bachelet nearly discredits her organisation when she doesn't show the same zeal to condemn the communication blockades in Pakistan.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in February voiced the same issues, saying India's position on human rights issues was based on "our own experience as an inclusive and pluralistic society and a vibrant democracy".

He called for the implementation of human rights in a non-selective manner and with due respect to non-interference in internal affairs. “We believe that violation of and gaps in implementation of human rights should be addressed in a fair and just manner, with objectivity, non-selectivity, transparency and with due respect to the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and national sovereignty.”

With inputs from agencies

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