India urged to improve its human rights record at the UN

UN member states ask India to protect minority rights and freedom of speech, but New Delhi defends its rights record.

Young women holds a sign that reads "no to islamophobia".
A citizen in New Delhi holds a placard during a peace vigil organised by citizens against the rise in hate crimes and violence against Muslims [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

UN member states have urged India to take a tougher stand on sexual violence and religious discrimination as they raised New Delhi’s human rights record during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The UPR held every four years is a mechanism to examine the human rights records of member states. Any member state can ask questions and make recommendations to the state under review.

During India’s fourth UPR review on Thursday, member states also asked New Delhi to reduce the broad application of “anti-terror” laws.

India’s Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been under scrutiny for the use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), particularly targeting minority groups and human rights activists, without allowing them an opportunity for a fair trial.

“We recommend that India reduce the broad application of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and similar laws against human rights activists, journalists and religious minorities,” said Michele Taylor, the US ambassador to the council.

“Despite legal protections, discrimination and violence based on gender and religious affiliation persist. The application of anti-terror legislation has led to prolonged detentions of human rights defenders and activists,” she added.

The UAPA is an “anti-terrorism” law under which authorities can designate someone as a “terrorist” based on suspicion and detain them for months without bail. The law has been criticised for its use against members of minority groups and rights groups and its low conviction rate.

Several countries appreciated India for implementing some of the recommendations shared during the last UPR held in 2017, others were quick to raise critical issues relating to the country’s deteriorating stance on minority rights, freedom of speech and violence against women, in particular.

Canada urged India to probe all acts of sexual violence and protect freedom of religion by investigating religious violence “including against Muslims”, while Germany said that it “remains concerned about the rights of marginalised groups”.

Earlier in April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) accused India of “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”. The independent bipartisan panel had called for the US state department to place India on the list of “countries of particular concern”.

India defends itself

New Delhi insisted it appreciated the role played by human rights defenders and said it would only impose the death penalty in “the rarest of rare cases”, as it heard other nations’ critiques at the UNHRC.

“India condemns any form of torture and maintains an inviolable stand against arbitrary detention, torture, rape or sexual violence by anyone,” India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the council.

New Delhi has signed the UN Convention Against Torture but has not ratified it.

Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International in India, told Al Jazeera that “the democratic world is doing exactly what it should be doing” by asking questions to India on its human rights record in the UPR.

“The world is telling India that the laws that are being implemented are not according to its own constitution. Citizenship Amendment Act [CAA] is not according to India’s constitution, and we should be knowing it,” Patel said, referring to a controversial law that was passed by the Indian parliament in 2019 and facilitates Indian citizenship to “persecuted” minorities from neighbouring countries but excludes Muslims.

Hundreds of Muslims, including students and activists, have been arrested for protesting against the CAA, which has been criticised for the lack of conformity with international human rights standards. Many of them have been slapped with UAPA law.

Country with the most internet shutdowns

During the UPR process, delegates also raised the issue of India’s stance on freedom of speech and expression, with Switzerland suggesting that India should “ensure open access to social networks and not impose any measures that would slow down or block internet connections”.

India tops the world in internet shutdowns with Indian-administered Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region, accounting for more than 60 percent of internet outages.

Mehta, the Indian Solicitor General, said that the Indian constitution guarantees the right to free speech.

However, “freedom of speech and expression is not absolute in nature and is subject to reasonable restrictions” in the interests of India’s sovereignty, integrity, security, foreign relations, “public order, decency, morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”, he said.

“Imposing reasonable restrictions enables the state to regulate freedom of speech and expression where it amounts to hate speech,” he insisted.

The peer review mechanism of the UPR process was established in 2006 by the UN General Assembly. All 193 member states of the UN undergo this review every four years, where countries come under the scrutiny and accountability of other members and are allowed to answer their questions pertaining to issues they deem critical.

Member states are also permitted to make recommendations to each other and discuss progress from previous sessions.

Sanjay Verma, secretary of India’s foreign ministry, said he would take the recommendations back to New Delhi for consideration.

“The government of India’s abiding commitment is for the promotion and protection of the human rights of our people,” he said.

“As the world’s largest democracy, India is committed to the highest standards of human rights.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies