[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for: 26 April 2006
Review: 122/06
From Asia with Caution:
An unconfident democracy, a suave dictatorship and a proxy candidate

As of today, the number of countries which submitted candidature without making any voluntary pledge have become minority. Among the 18 candidates from Asia, only Indonesia, Iraq and Malaysia are yet to submit any voluntary pledge. However, many of the pledges from countries such as Bangladesh, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordon, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon and Republic of Korea cannot be considered as pledge. These are forwarding letters.

A number of member States have requested the Secretariat of the General Assembly to translate the pledges. Obviously, the request has been made for self-promotion. Therefore, the pledges require serious scrutiny as even a country like Iraq has submitted its candidacy.

I. India: An unconfident democracy

India is undoubtedly one of the few countries in Asia which can be proud of its a few functioning democratic institutions at higher level. While India in one hand promotes contribution of US$ 10 million for UN Democracy Fund, on the other hand, it seeks to escape scrutiny by the United Nations mechanisms. It strongly promotes technical cooperation as the role for the UN.

Does India promote only “technical cooperation”?  India's recent support to the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) for the restoration of democracy in Nepal is certainly not a case of “technical cooperation". Was the support to the SPA an exception? Since independence, India did not advocate technical cooperation for restoring the monarchy in Nepal in 1951, for creation of Bangladesh in 1971, for the restoration of democracy in Nepal in 1990 and again in April 2006. Had India not supported the SPA, it would have been a conscious intervention to support King Gyanendra who was hell-bent on violating all human rights and fundamental freedoms. After all, India did not support the resolution on technical cooperation assistance to Nepal at the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights. Rather it questioned socalled “naming and shaming” in the name of technical cooperation.

India's pledge makes a strong case for its domestic human rights mechanisms. Undoubtedly, human rights are best implemented by national mechanisms. However, this requires strengthening of the national mechanisms. But, India's much-vaunted NHRC does not have jurisdiction over the armed forces. While India must be lauded for the Right to Information Act, it only promises to “actively support domestic and international processes” that seek to advance empowerment of women, women rights, gender, rights of the child and the rights of persons with disabilities. The request from the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the country has been pending since 1993. There was also no reference to the longstanding recommendation of the NHRC to ratify the Convention Against Torture and the announcement of Home Minister Shivraj Patil at a seminar organized by the NHRC on 30 March 2006 that the Government is considering enacting a legislation to provide compensation to victims of custodial violence. While the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is highly laudable, India has also not submitted any report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

At the recent informal summit of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, ASEAN called upon India and China to play more active role for national reconciliation and restoration of democracy in Myanmar. India is also partly being blamed for the collapsing peace process in Sri Lanka because of its unwillingness to play more active role, if not lead the peace process, despite regular visits by the Norwegian and Sri Lankan authorities to New Delhi to brief the Indian counterparts.

As India is increasingly being asked to play a more critical role on democracy issues, it appears to be caught in a dilemma over the principles of territorial sovereignty and non-intervention, largely because of its traditional fears of external involvement in its internal affairs. India's traditional fears are no longer justified in the global village but its pledge sadly reflects these fears.

It is not surprising. President APJ Adbul Kalam who visited Myanmar on 8-9 March 2006 reportedly expressed the concerns of the people of India about the continued detention of Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi only when General Than Shwe came to see off the President at the Yangoon airport.

The challenge for India is to take human rights and democracy issues from the tarmac to the summit halls. After 57 years of experience with democracy (two years of emergency by Mrs Indira Gandhi), India is yet to realise that "technical cooperation" cannot establish democracy; it can only strengthen democracy if it already exists. "Naming and shaming" is an integral part of establishing or restoring democracy.

II. Pakistan: Don't go by the pledge

Like China, Pakistan has perfected the art of making rights noises. It rightly claims its contribution in the United Nations. But Pakistan is also the architect of the Asian Group's Non-Paper on Enhancing the Effectiveness of the Special Mechanisms of the Commission on Human Rights" that sought to destroy the special procedures.

Pakistan promises to support “all international efforts to achieve universal ratification of core human rights treaties” but it has not given any date to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention Against Torture.

At national level, it promises to establish a National Human Rights Commission soon. But the draft Bill falls far short of the United Nations Paris Principles on National Human Rights Institutions with regard to mandate, composition, appointment of the members, funding for the NHRC, extremely restrictive access to the prisons etc.

III. Iraq: Proxy acts independent

There are a few countries from Asia which are unlikely to submit candidacy to the Human Rights Council elections because of the deplorable human rights record. These include Laos, Myanmar and Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. Yet, Iraq which has become synonymous of anarchy, torture and killings of the innocent, dared to submit its candidature.

Is the inability of the discredited United Nations Commission on Human Rights to condemn human rights violations in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussain makes Iraq confident that it will be elected as a member of the Human Rights Council? Or is it a proxy candidate for the United States?

Iraq has not submitted any pledge to judge its credentials. Has the pledge not been approved by the Pentagon?

The candidature of Iraq is more of a challenge for the Western Europe and Other countries than the Asian group.

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