Much at stake in the upcoming German elections – what about human rights and relations with India?

In the context of the upcoming trade agreement between the European Union and India, all the major political parties contesting in the approaching German elections see India as a partner they want to increase collaboration with, while not critically engaging at all with India’s human rights failures, writes ALENA KAHLE.


ON September 26, the Federal Republic of Germany goes to the polls to elect a new government. The elections will determine the new face of the Republic – the Chancellor – at a time when none of the first-time voters have ever known a chancellor different than Angela Merkel, who has led the country and represented it on the international stage for sixteen years.

Under Merkel’s lead, human rights in TurkeyRussia and China have been hotly debated; less hotly so, however, have been those in India. At the same time, Merkel has repeatedly collaborated with autocrats, leading the Financial Review to write that norms such as democracy, rule of law and human rights were “mocked” as Merkel “has tended to place German profit and expediency above European principles and values”.

As such, with Merkel leaving the stage, not only does Germany find itself at a critical juncture on September 26 – the future of German investment in and trade with India does, too. 

This article examines what shift can be expected in Indo-German relations after September 26. While several parties are running for chancellorship, three parties oscillate around 20% of the vote share in public polls and are thus likely candidates to succeed: the Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU), the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen).

Note that coalition governance is the norm in Germany, although coalition governments are only formed after the elections. As polling data shows, there is a possibility that a CDU-SPD coalition would not reach an absolute majority. This complicates matters – especially as the CDU has expressed not wanting to enter into a coalition with the Greens. Given the uncertainty of the coalitions, this article examines individual party election manifestos and previous engagements of the respective candidates.

Bigger Role for India

India – as opposed to China, Russia, Turkey and Israel – is not allocated a dedicated section in the election manifestos, but it does find mention as an example of a democratic country that all parties want to deepen engagement with. While the CDU affirms in its manifesto that Germany’s trade partners increasingly disregard their international legal obligations, it also implicitly pays no attention to India’s record of doing so. The CDU asserts that expanded cooperation with India is central, arguing that India “advocate[s] the strengthening of the rules-based international order” and is hence “our natural partners in cooperation and values”.

While the independent research institute V-Dem Institute earlier this year downgraded India to a de facto “electoral autocracy”, it appears that the CDU refers to India’s status as a de jure democracy. The picture is no different for the SPD and the Greens, who also appears to extend blanket trust towards India solely because of its formal existence as a democracy.

Importantly, while the CDU asserts that “the greatest foreign and security policy challenge today comes from the People’s Republic of China”, it also clarifies that China – as well as Syria and Russia – must and will remain cooperation partners. The SPD has expressed the same position. The Green Party condemned these positions as “irresponsible”, which suggests that the Greens are less open to cooperating with gross violators of human rights, even if such cooperation would help Germany’s economic stability and growth.

As such, a government based on the Greens’ political priorities would likely be less inclined to engaging economically with Russia and China – a gap which would have to be filled by another comparably large entity. It is therefore likely that India would assume an even more central role in a Green-led German government.

No Centrality of Human Rights

India’s human rights record has only recently been made the subject of proper discussion in the German Bundestag, that is, the German federal parliament. As both the SPD and the CDU assert in their October 2019 joint proposal (Drs. 19/14340), Indo-German relations should prioritize the “advocacy for religious freedom and freedom of expression in India”. Led by the CDU and SPD, the Bundestag also called on the Indian government to lift restrictions imposed in Jammu and Kashmir post the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Important as these two statements are, they show that Germany, like much of the West, interprets ‘human rights’ narrowly by focusing on civil liberties and minority rights, especially those of women. Notably, it is these rights that have historically justified unlawful invasions in third countries, which leads to suggest that the Bundestag did not pass a resolution out of entirely selfless reasons or a commitment to a “rule of law”. 

The claim of the SPD that “the indivisibility and universal validity of human rights is non-negotiable” and that it will “protect those who stand up for them” has little empirical basis, as SPD and CDU-led Germany has consistently valued profitability over a holistic understanding of human rights that goes beyond a checklist.

For instance, while all parties agree China is authoritarian, the CDU and the SPD assert that continued cooperation with it is necessary. In a visit to China in early 2019, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz – at the time Vice-Chancellor of Germany – failed to meet with civil society representatives, let alone human rights defenders, leading the Süddeutsche to speculate that he had done so to appease trade relations.

As recently as earlier this month, the CDU’s candidate Armin Laschet expressed his support for the deportation of Afghan refugees should they have been convicted of a crime, regardless of their approved asylum status or the conditions in Afghanistan. As such, Laschet has positioned himself in favour of so-called ‘refoulement’ – an act that is strictly prohibited under human rights law – and signalled that “human rights” is merely a catchphrase invoked by the CDU-led government.

The Greens, on the other hand, take a stronger stance in favour of consistently respecting human rights. In their election manifesto, they make an express mention of human rights defenders across the world and propose to introduce a point of contact for them in each relevant German embassy. As the following section shows, the Greens take steps to mainstream human rights values as a holistic package – not merely religious and civil liberties – into their politics by taking a critical position on the upcoming free trade agreement with India.

Also read: The World is Connected by #HumanRights

Stalling of a Free Trade Agreement

Given the decision at the 16th European Union (EU)-India Summit on May 8, 2021, to resume negotiations for an EU-India free trade agreement (FTA), it is relevant to consider what demands the different parties may bring to the table for such a trade deal.

Free trade policies are inherently accompanied by the neoliberal retraction of the State – the actor of whom human rights protection is legally required, and whose assistance will only be more needed as the climate crisis destroys livelihoods. Much has already been written about how economic liberalization in India has increased economic inequality, and extensive evidence exists that trade with foreign entities has directly fuelled the killing of Adivasi and environmental activists across India.

As the EU-India People’s Roadmap and the European Parliamentary Research Service highlight, there are serious concerns about the FTA increasing inequality and poverty as well as having adverse environmental consequences that must be adequately addressed. However, the EU-Indian FTA negotiations had previously been put on hold, as India opposed several key clauses that created strict standards for assessing human rights violations and providing adequate redress for them.

Notably, in June 2021, the SPD led the proposal that succeeded in putting in place a supply chain human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD) law, which has, however, been criticized for merely ‘ticking boxes’ and hence providing a cover for trade to appear positive by default. Especially given the track record of the SPD laid out earlier, this criticism is potent.

The Greens, on the other hand, demand “binding and enforceable human rights, environmental and social standards” in their manifesto. They have expressed their strong disapproval of the EU-China FTA, calling it “inadequate in the areas of level playing field and human rights”, and clearly stated that they “cannot approve it in its current form”.

This stands in strong contrast to the position of the CDU, which, even after the European Parliament had frozen the EU-China deal given the deteriorating human rights situation in China, continues to push for it.

Given that trade deal negotiations between India and the EU initially stalled because of different positions on human rights, environmental and social standards, but are now resumed despite no material changes in India’s legal framework, it is likely that an FTA supported by an SPD or CDU-led Germany would leave several issued unaddressed. Under a Greens-led government, however, it is likely to stall again in the absence of improvements.

Concluding Thoughts

Much of not only German but also European relations with India depend on the positions of the next German chancellor, the party they represent and the coalition that is ultimately formed.

Overall, the three major parties’ positions on India are more or less consistent, with each asserting that it looks forward to increased collaboration in the future, and sees India as a reliable partner by default. While the Greens do call for stricter enforcement of human rights through innovative means and thereby raise questions about a free trade agreement with India, they are not opposed to furthering trade in general, even in the absence of proper human rights and environmental standards. As such, it is to be expected that the status quo of Indo-German relations will remain largely unchanged, despite an urgent need to rethink the relations with human rights positioned centrally.

(Alena Kahle is a German citizen working as a policy associate for The London Story, a diaspora-led thinktank. She has a degree in International Justice from Leiden University. The views expressed are personal.)

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