The universality of universal human rights has been under question since the inception of the discourse. Past critiques have been based on ethical and theoretical grounds, and moored in history and culture. Are recent scathing attacks in non-Western countries against the doctrine of universal human rights more pragmatic and arbitrary?
ON July 12, the European Parliamentpassed a resolution on the ongoing violence in the Indian state of Manipur.
Manipur has been in a state of violent turmoil for the past five months, which observers havedescribed as being akin to a “civil war”.
Manipur has three broad ethnic divisions. The largely Hindu Meiteis live in the Imphal valley in the centre of the state. Naga tribes live in the hills in the north and Kuki tribes live in the hills in the south. Nagas and Kukis are predominantly Christian.
Meiteis are 60 percent of the state’s population and Nagas, Kukis and other groups make up the rest. Meitieis have been confined to about 10 percent of the state’s land and hope that the Scheduled Tribe status will allow them to own land in the hills otherwise reserved for the Nagas and Kukis.
At the heart of the unrest is the demand of the Meiteis to be accorded Scheduled Tribe status. Nagas and Kukis are opposed to this demand.
The European Parliament resolution notes that the violent clashes since May 3 have resulted in the death of more than 120 people, the displacement of more than 50,000 people and the destruction of 1,700 houses, 250 churches and several houses, besides schools and other buildings.
Resolution by European Parliament
The European Parliament claims that intolerance towards religious minorities, including Christians, is contributing to the violence in Manipur and the partisan involvement of security forces has caused distrust in authorities.
In its recommendations, the European Parliament urges Indian authorities to protect all religious minorities, “such as Manipur’s Christain community”. It calls on political leaders to stop inflammatory statements and not criminalise those critical of the government’s conduct.
The resolution raises concerns about “politically motivated, divisive politics” that promote Hindu majoritarianism in India.
In its recommendations, it urges Indian authorities to protect all religious minorities, “such as Manipur’s Christain community”. It calls on political leaders to stop inflammatory statements and not criminalise those critical of the government’s conduct.
Highlighting the state government’s imposition of curfew, the shoot-on-sight orders to enforce it and the shutdown of the internet, the European Parliament’s resolution alleges that the information gathering and reporting by media and civil society groups is severely hindered.
The European Parliament, through its resolution, recommends that Indian authorities allow independent investigations into the violence, end the internet shutdown and grant national and international media access to the state.
The resolution also urges the Union government to repealThe Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 and calls for human rights to be included in all areas of the partnership between the European Union and India, including trade.
Checks and balances
As a member of the United Nations, India is subjected to various human rights review mechanisms. For instance, theUniversal Periodic Review (UPR) is a review mechanism of the Human Rights Council which involves a review of the human rights record of 193 UN member States once every four and a half years.
UN member States review the human rights performance of fellow member States and provide recommendations.
Recognising its universal character, India hassaid that it extends the UPR its support. It has also stated that it plays an active role in the global promotion and protection of human rights and believes in the primacy of States in fulfilling their human rights obligations.
In August last year, for the latest UPR process, India submitted its national report, outlining steps towards the protection and promotion of human rights, as well as the steps taken toward the implementation of recommendations accepted by India during the UPR cycle in 2017.
During the review of the national report in November last year,reportedly 130 member States made 339 recommendations highlighting some of the most urgent human rights concerns in India.
Amongst other recommendations, the member States underlined the need for India to protect minority communities and vulnerable groups; prevent gender-based violence; ensure freedom to the civil society, human rights defenders, and media; and end torture in custody.
The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA)’s accreditation of India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) with ‘A’ status enables India to fully participate in the activities of the UN, including attending any meeting of the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.
[It is an] emerging position in India, that the West should mind its own business and not interfere in the ‘internal affairs’ of India which is frequently touted as a sign of a ‘new India’ by politicians and public figures.
In May 2023, the GANHRI SCAdeferred India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) by one year.
The reasons for the defermentreportedly included political interference in appointments, poor cooperation with civil society, insufficient action to protect marginalised groups, and the NHRC’s lack of independence, pluralism, diversity and accountability. The SCA has recommended advocating with the government and legislature to introduce amendments to improve compliance with the Paris Principles.
The NHRC had stated that it would submit its response to the SCA as a part of the ongoing process.
Such recommendations and concerns raised by the international community are more than ‘tool-kits’ for the advocates of human rights to raise the issues with the respective States and to hold them accountable.
Even though member States are criticised for failing to implement the recommendations, the act of requiring an account of the actions of the States conveys a firm message that their non-conforming provisions are not unscrutinised.
On July 13, after the European Parliament adopted the resolution, the official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, responded to media queries on the resolution.
Bagchitermed the passing of the resolution as an “interference” in India’s internal affairs, which is deemed as “unacceptable” and reflective of a “colonial mindset”.
Such statements have become a staple official Indian response to any foreign commentary on the goings-on in India. But sometimes they are tempered with subtlety revealing other aspects of the emerging foreign policy of the current regime, and perhaps its ideological moorings.
An emerging position outside the West
This emerging position in India, that the West should mind its own business and not interfere in the ‘internal affairs’ of India is frequentlytouted as a sign of a ‘new India’ by politicians and public figures.
As per their narrative, the new India does not take lessons on human rights and morality from the West.
But the fact of the matter is that this position is reflective of a tectonic shift in geopolitics. As non-Western countries make major social, economic and political ‘readjustments’, the consequences are often violent and discriminatory.
When established institutions in the West point out the faults in these ‘readjustments’, these countries accuse the West of a colonial, dominating or interfering mindset.
Values relating to human rights, such as coexistence and sustainability, existed in Asian and African societies since ancient times and long before the conception of UDHR in 1948, but were not seen from the perspective of modern human rights.
For example, in October 2021, when China was accused of human rights violations during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the Chinese government issued astatement that said, “The days when Western countries could bully and oppress developing countries are long gone”.
It alleged that by placing accusations against China, countries such as the United States and France are “desperately trying to cover up their own terrible human rights record”.
Further, the statement pointed out various human rights violations by the United States, namely, the genocide against American Indians, deaths due to the pandemic, deaths of Muslim civilians in the Middle East and Central Asia, and tragedies in other countries due to outside military intervention.
“Whether a country is democratic or not should be judged by its own people, not some individuals outside the country, let alone by some individuals in Western countries,” the statement asserted.
Similarly, Russiaaccused European policy initiatives to be “imbued with a neo-colonial mentality” and “a neo-colonial logic”. In particular, Russia criticised France’s interference in the internal affairs of African countries such as Burkina Faso and Libya.
In August 2022, speaking on the Ukraine–Russia conflict, South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandorstated that in their “interaction” with partners in Europe, there was a “sense of patronising bullying to the effect that ‘you choose this or else’.”
The non-universality of universal rights
The United Nations Security Council’s membership iscriticised for failing to reflect the current world order due to the underrepresentation of developing countries.
Experts have alsopointed out that resolutions of the Human Rights Council, mostly drafted by Western countries, have repeatedly targeted developing countries, particularly in Africa.
However, no explicit resolutions are passed against systemic racism and police brutality in the US or against the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US and the UK, it is claimed.
The post-colonial critiques of sovereigntyargue that international relations rely on “Western intellectual tradition”, wherein several dichotomies, such as civilised–uncivilised, modern–traditional and democratic–undemocratic, condition the discourse of sovereignty for non-Western States.
If India has a right to comment on the plight of Hindus anywhere in the world, it might provide the ethical foundation for Christian-majority countries to comment on the plight of Christians in India.
Thus, it is argued that the concept of sovereignty of non-Western States is largely judged based on whether they align with Western standards.
Various declarations or treaties of international organisations, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the United Nations Charter, areconsidered to represent the “modern day standard of morality, justice and decency”.
Such universal human rights appear to be intrinsic to all human beings, irrespective of any characteristics, such as nationality, religion or gender.
Nevertheless,critics of the universal regime of human rights argue that such international norms are “Eurocentric in character and hegemonic in practice”.
Critics in non-Western countriescontend that the implementation of rights needs to take into account the historical, cultural and religious backgrounds, for instance, the significance of community over the individual.
Notably, values relating to human rights, such as coexistence and sustainability, existed in Asian and African societies since ancient times and long before the conception of UDHR in 1948, but were not seen from the perspective of modern human rights.
Experts allege that the Western notions of human rights, as per the individualistic and capitalist ideologies, have little relevance in African countries that emphasise the collective or the community and human dignity.
According toscholars, the African conception of human rights was based on religious doctrines and the principle of accountability to ancestral spirits.
In its seeming departure from contemporary human rights, it isargued that the African Charter, a regional human rights instrument, entails certain rights and duties on the individual to live a meaningful life and contribute to society.
The nuances of pragmatism
Thus, arguments of Western bullying and domination when it comes to human rights are not new.
However, the new discourse in India and other non-Western countries differs from the more traditional critique of the doctrine of Universal rights being too ‘Eurocentric’ in being short-term, pragmatic and arbitrary.
For example, in April last year, secretary of State Antony Blinkensaid that the US is “monitoring some recent concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials”.
Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankarresponded by saying that India takes up human rights issues as well when they arise in the US, especially “when they pertain to our community”.
In making an argument that Europe should consider the problems of the rest of the world as its own, wasn’t Jaishankar inviting Europe to comment on other affairs related to India as well?
It is unclear what Jaishankar meant by “our community”. Was it US-citizens of Indian origin, Indian citizens living and working in the US, or Hindus living in the US?
At various points in the past, the Indian government has raised questions on all three of these verticals.
But if India has a right to comment on the plight of Hindus anywhere in the world, it might provide the ethical foundation for Christian-majority countries to comment on the plight of Christians in India.
Take another example. On May 1, the United States Department of State released anannual report on the status of religious freedom in India, titled India 2022 International Religious Freedom Report.
The report tabulates incidents of violence in 2022 against religious minorities in India, including killings, assault and intimidation, extensively.
India’s Union government has, however, ‘rejected’ the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report for its “misrepresentation of facts”, terming the report “biased” and “motivated”.
The Indian government urged the USCIRF “to desist from such efforts” in the future and to make efforts to understand India’s “plurality, its democratic ethos and its constitutional mechanism” better.
In his response to the report, Bagchistated, “In our discussions with the US, we have regularly highlighted issues of concern there, including racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence.”
Obviously gun violence is not a problem in India and nor is race in the manner in which it is in the US. Therefore, Bagchi was reflecting a position that India does highlight human rights issues in the US even when they do not ‘directly’ concern India.
In June 2022, Jaishankar represented India at the Globsec’s forum, a global strategic conference of Central and Eastern European countries.
Jaishankar responded to a question on India’s official position on the Ukraine–Russia conflict andsaid, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
Jaishankar was referring to Europe’s refusal to comment on the Sino–Indian impasse in Ladakh. However, in making an argument that Europe should consider the problems of the rest of the world as its own, wasn’t Jaishankar inviting Europe to comment on other affairs related to India as well?
It is difficult to defend a position where, if commentary by governments and organisations in the West that suit a certain non-Western government’s interests are welcome, but when they don’t suit the same non-Western government’s interests, they are signs of a ‘colonial mentality’ or ‘bullying’.
Similarly, in June last year, several Muslim-majority countries, including those that are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council,condemned the controversial comments made by two senior officials of India’s ruling party against the Prophet Muhammad.
India’s ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, remarked that some “fringe elements” did not represent the views of the Indian government.
The episode again highlighted the fact that being part of an international community is a privilege that comes with its own fetters on what any country can do domestically.
Onviolations of human rights in Switzerland, as flagged by special rapporteurs and the recommendations of treaty bodies, the Swiss Ambassador to the UN remarked, “We may disagree on the way things are described, or we could indeed note that there is room for improvement and address it accordingly.”
According to ahypothesis, globalisation triggers “reactionary movements” where large-scale cooperation focuses on favouring one’s own ethnic, racial or language group; or alternatively, weakens the relevance of ethnicity, locality or nationhood as sources of identification.
It isargued that in a globalised world, human rights are reliant on international and global actors and organisations. In the era of globalisation, the engagement of international standards and actors for upholding human rights is imminent.
Since countries cannot be their own judges, actions from the international community on the actual or threatened violations of human rights by domestic political powers are vital.
More active participation of non-Western countries in recognising human rights norms and holding the developed world accountable for their violations is perhaps the way forward.