Wrangling at the world’s premier human rights body this March has marked another low in international relations for India and South Africa.
In a discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the creation of a safe and enabling environment for civil society, both countries struck a sour note when they sought to unsuccessfully undermine the work and contributions of human rights defenders. The UN Human Rights Council’s debate during its recent session from 3-28 March was prompted by an alarming rise in repressive laws, physical attacks and other forms of persecution of human rights defenders in many parts of the world over the last few years.
On 11 March Indian diplomats delivered a statement on behalf of a group of ‘like-minded’ countries comprising some of the world’s most egregious violators of democratic freedoms including Bahrain, China, Egypt, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Zimbabwe urging the international community to exercise caution in supporting “causes of civil society.” This statement was also endorsed by South Africa.
On 25 March South African diplomats, supported by the Indians and some authoritarian governments, attempted to impede the passage of a UN Human Rights Council resolution on the ‘promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.’ They proposed that the right to peaceful protest should be qualified by the need to ensure stability of the state and friendly relations with foreign countries.
Although the proposals, supported by South Africa and India were defeated when put to vote, it is deeply troubling that two proud democracies with vibrant civil societies that contribute substantially to national life should make common cause with authoritarian and repressive governments to undermine well established principles of international law.
Worryingly, this seems to be part of a growing trend. In October 2011, the South African government delayed granting a visa to the Dalai Lama ostensibly under pressure from the Chinese government. The spiritual leader of the Tibetan people was forced to cancel plans to attend the 80th birthday celebrations of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A court later ruled the government officials “unreasonably delayed” action on the Dalai Lama’s visa application.
On 27 March this year, India abstained from a vote at the UN Human Rights Council demanding an international investigation into the commission on war crimes by Sri Lanka during the final stages of the 2009 civil war. Sri Lanka’s government has been accused of openly intimidating civil society activists demanding accountability from its security forces.
India and South Africa also share the blame for their failure to censure the Assad government for carrying out murderous attacks on largely peaceful pro-democracy protestors in the early days of the Syrian crisis.
Such short-sighted conduct in their foreign affairs is a far cry from the path of principled diplomacy pursued by modern India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and South Africa’s first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela. Both leaders were strong proponents of respect for human and democratic rights at home and abroad.
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Nehru’s unwavering support for anti-colonial struggles in the 1950s and the early 60s drew inspiration from the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Newly independent India’s moral stance at the United Nations played a critical role in the demise of colonialism in the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, India’s dogged determination to oppose institutionalised racism by South Africa’s apartheid regime contributed to international pressure that helped bring about apartheid’s demise.
Nelson Mandela was acutely aware of the role that international solidarity played in supporting anti-apartheid activists as they mobilised on the streets. As president, he made a compelling speech at the Southern African Development Community’s periodic conference in 1997 in Blantyre, Malawi. He urged that national sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of other countries could not blunt the common concern for democracy, human rights and good governance in the regional grouping. Mandela called upon his fellow leaders to recognise the right of citizens to “participate unhindered in political activities.”
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The recent unfortunate positions adopted by India and South Africa at the Human Rights Council are an absurd reversal. The justification being proffered by diplomats seems to be that they wanted to challenge western hypocrisy and hegemonic moralising on human rights, particularly in developing countries. While it is true that the three permanent western members of the UN Security Council have selectively invoked human rights to advance their own geo-political and strategic interests on several occasions, in this case western countries did the right thing by voting in favour of the resolution.
India and South Africa on the other hand have severely tarnished their reputations as democratic and rights-respecting nations by voting alongside some of the most intolerant regimes on the planet.
Notably, Brazil who is a strategic partner of both countries in the IBSA trilateral, which seeks democratic reform of global governance institutions, voted in favour of the resolution despite the fact that the country was hit by a spate of protests in 2013. Some other countries from the global south that voted in favour of the resolution are Argentina, Benin, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Peru, Sierra Leone, and South Korea.
India and South Africa’s anti-civil society actions obstructing the right to peaceful protest are indeed quite perplexing. Both countries are facing general elections this year in which their populations are mobilising on a massive scale through public assemblies. Hopefully, the backsliding at the Human Rights Council on the right to protest will not be an indicator of how they will deal with dissent or protest at home. National populations in the two countries would be outraged if any new measures were introduced domestically to diminish their right to demonstrate without fear of reprisals.
It’s ironic that the Indian and South African delegations adopted such a regressive position in Geneva this March when the foundations of their states were forged by the blood and sweat of civil society activists who used civil disobedience as a key weapon to challenge injustice.