Implications of India’s UNHRC vote

Implications of India’s UNHRC vote

If India wants to be counted as a major power it will have to make up its mind on important global issues


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For some time I was unable to make up my mind regarding my own personal response to India’s vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 22nd. Frankly, I was debating what kind of national interest I should keep in mind when framing my response – enlightened national interest or strategic interest of the country? After much debating, I have now made up my mind. New Delhi did the right thing by voting against Colombo. Let me tell you why.

First of all, let me examine the rationale of those who vehemently argued that New Delhi should side with Colombo especially at a time when the Euro-Atlantic political community seemed to have been clearly all out against the Sri Lankan government on the issue of Human Right abuses and war crimes.

India would, proponents of such a view argued, lose its traditionally strong diplomatic relationship and strategic leverage with the Sri Lankan government if it voted against Colombo. Being on the right side of the Sri Lankan government is of great significance at this point of time all the more because of the Chinese forays into Sri Lanka. I was in Colombo recently and the increasing Chinese presence there should be seen to be believed. Not only do they have an economic presence in the island nation but also strategic presence. India’s vote against Colombo (and Chinese vote in favour) is likely to deepen this Sino-Sri Lankan strategic partnership. Conspiracy theorists have also argued that it is the Chinese closeness to the Sri Lankan regime that the Americans wanted to target and hence the UNHRC resolution..

The other argument made by critics of the Indian decision is that India should not abide by the western (read American) human rights standards. They argue that the Indian vote shows that New Delhi has finally started acting under the directions of Washington on key international issues where India’s voice matters. What else, they ask, can explain the fact that India did not respond in the same manner when it had to make up its mind on human rights issues in Sudan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, North Korea etc? And this vote has now created a precedent for India and whenever a similar situation arises again it will be forced by the West vote as per their directives. Bad precedent it is, the argument goes.

More importantly, the fact that India has now taken a stand on human rights issues with regard to other countries will mean that India will be bound by the same standards on human rights situations from now on. In other words, other countries will now talk about human rights abuses in Kashmir, and India will not be able to hide under the classic argument of “non-interference in internal affairs”.

I am not going to critique each of the above-mentioned reasons. Rather, I will explain my reasons for arguing that Indian decision to vote against Sri Lanka is laudable. First of all, let’s look at the vote from an enlightened strategic interest. The fact that India has been pushing hard to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and wants to be treated as an emerging global power simply means that India has to adopt a new behavior pattern – increased power presupposes increased responsibilities. If India wants to be counted as a major power it will have to make up its mind on important global issues. It would be impossible to be a free-riding great power.

It is also important to note that a country’s foreign policy can not be based only on material considerations. Normative considerations need to form an important aspect of India’s external outlook and policy. Respect for human rights is a good normative consideration irrespective of whether or not the western countries have been talking about it. Sure, India can have its own version of human rights. But you can’t be criticizing the western notions of human rights standards just because they are western. Do we have an alternative conception of human rights? If so, please bring them on board and discuss it with the rest of the world. India can not afford to go on criticizing the western human rights standards when it is unwilling to articulate its alternative version of human rights standards.

The fact is that the Sri Lankan government grossly violated human rights and killed thousands of Tamil civilians in the final stages of the anti-LTTE campaign. There is no denying of that. And that needs to be condemned. More importantly, there is only triumphalism in today’s Colombo rather than remorse or any attempt at bringing justice and succor to the Tamil population in the country. Even to this day those speaking against the Sri Lankan government’ policies continue to disappear in “white vans without number plates”. This should not be allowed to continue.

Does India have the moral standing to sit in judgment of human rights violations in other countries when there are number of commissions of such acts within India itself? Of course, if India judges other countries on the basis of certain human rights standards, it will also be judged by others on the same standards. You can’t get away from that. But so what? I think it is time that India as a nation acknowledged that we have violated human rights of our own people on many occasions and that we regret it. And let’s say that we will make sure that such instances will not be allowed to repeat in future, rather than trying to find cover under the vague and much-embattled notion of sovereignty and the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other counties”. Its time India adopted new standards of human rights for itself and others.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).


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