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Can India be an international human rights leader?

As an emerging economy with a growing work force, India believes it should have a voice in global affairs. No one disagrees. But then, on crucial foreign policy issues, India should take initiatives that seek an end to human suffering. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights Español中国语文हिंदी

Mumbai: Many Indians believe that as an emerging power, their country has a growing role in world affairs. The government seeks a global profile, partnering with other nations through a dizzying array of international organizations and associations that look as though they have been picked up in a Scrabble game: BRICS, CHOGM, ASEAN, IBSA, SAARC, NAM, IOCARC, to name just a few.  

India’s foreign policy establishment also believes that India deserves a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.  New Delhi has become an important stop for almost every significant world leader and they are usually accompanied by businesses looking for opportunities to tap into India’s vast market potential. Almost all of them also claim to support a permanent seat for India on the Security Council.

Yet what India would do with an international leadership role is still unclear. To date, it has not made use of intergovernmental organizations to promote respect for democracy and human rights abroad. Instead, the Asian giant is a chronic fence-sitter on key issues. It rarely votes for human rights resolutions on specific countries (though Sri Lanka has been a welcome exception in the past two years). Its recent two-year term on the Security Council was widely seen in foreign policy circles as a disappointment. India abstained on hard issues of international peace and security— even when civilians were at grave risk— a policy paralysis that has not helped the country’s stature.

Flickr/Ramesh Lalwani. Some rights reserved.

As perhaps the most established democracy in the developing world, India has the potential to develop a powerful role on the international stage as a promoter of democracy and rights, thereby making common cause with the world’s oppressed and marginalized people. While India wants to defend the sovereignty of nations, it should speak for the rights of citizens, not the actions of governments.

Yet, in recent years, it has not taken significant steps in this direction.

Despite its growing economic power and leverage as an international donor, India only appears to have a clear vision of what it does not want to do. It abstains from western-led initiatives it considers aggressive. It also resists actions it views as conflicting with its strategic agenda towards China.

With its growing international influence, New Delhi seems to have adopted China’s selective policy of promoting non-interference in the “internal affairs” of other states. Its foreign policy highlights bilateral engagements and “quiet diplomacy.” Experts express distrust for international action to address human rights violations by the state, noting, with reason, that smaller and vulnerable countries are targeted, while major powers and favorites of the west are shielded from international action. New Delhi regards itself as a champion for governments in developing states that believe that their former colonial masters, having destroyed economies and created communal divisions in the colonies for their own financial gain, are now imposing standards that they themselves violated for centuries.

Traditionally, Europeans and North Americans have taken the lead on global bilateral and multilateral diplomacy for the protection of human rights. That power stemmed from the economic ability to invest abroad, provide aid, trade and financial services, use their military strength, and cultural and historical affiliations.

India is now gaining the resources and clout to play a positive leadership role. And if it does not agree with the interventionist approach, it should still offer alternatives. Right now the largest democracy in the world has a chance to lead and support attempts by countries from the global south to persuade and pressure abusive governments.

A hopeful sign is its recent willingness to speak out on Sri Lanka. After several years of ‘quiet diplomacy’ which had no impact, India joined others at the UN Human Rights Council to call for accountability for war crimes committed by both the government and the LTTE. It has supported Human Rights Council resolutions on Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013.  In his 2013 statement in support of the resolution, the Indian envoy noted “the inadequate progress by Sri Lanka,” and called “for an independent and credible investigation into allegations of human rights violations and loss of civilian lives.” 

India has to overcome some crucial challenges to meet its foreign policy expectations. It has a very small diplomatic cadre and thus is often ill-equipped to tackle country situations. Civil society in India rarely participates in or informs foreign policy discourse. The few think tanks and universities that address these issues have little influence over the foreign policy establishment. India also has to come to terms with the rising role of China on the world stage. Until now its foreign policy, to a large part, has been focused on strategic concerns. There have been three wars with Pakistan, and one with China. Pakistan remains an anxiety because of militant groups that are based on and supported by some in the establishment. But it is China, with its expanding footprint in the region, which includes ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma, that is being tracked by experts. China actively rejects human rights to protect its foreign trade and investment, and acted strategically in Burma to capitalize on India’s decision to cut ties with the junta following the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi.  The Indian establishment believes that if it develops a principled approach to foreign affairs, China will once again use this to its own advantage.

However, India should instead recognise that it is unlikely to have the cash to compete with China in checkbook diplomacy. As a democracy, it faces risks by openly supporting dictatorships and regimes that remain in power through oppression.

India has had past opportunities to distinguish itself on the international stage. In Syria, an IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) team met with the Bashar Al-Assad government in 2011 to call for protection of human rights. Assad admitted to “some mistakes” and promised reform.  But IBSA failed to follow up and press for an end to human rights violations. Two years on, some 80,000 people are dead, nearly four million displaced, and international efforts to broker peace, humanitarian assistance and accountability are at a standstill.

In Sri Lanka, India chose private diplomacy to address concerns about risks to civilians during the brutal conclusion to the fighting between the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A United Nations Panel of Experts report found that 40,000 civilians may have died in the last months of the war, largely from indiscriminate government shelling. Strong and early objections by the Indian government to the Sri Lankan government’s conduct of the war might have saved civilian lives.

Ironically, when India had far less clout in the global community, it took stronger positions on contentious issues. In 1959, while still a very young nation, India provided asylum to the Dalai Lama. This continues to be a sore point in India’s relations with China, but the Tibetan government-in-exile has remained based in India, along with nearly 100,000 Tibetan refugees. India was one of the leading voices to oppose apartheid in South Africa. In its own neighborhood, India, in the early 1990s, promoted democracy in Bangladesh and Nepal. New Delhi was a strong critic of the Burmese military regime in the early days when Aung San Suu Kyi was being persecuted..

Today, India has the chance to align its interests with the oppressed people of the world who are increasingly demanding dignity and respect for their basic rights. India should not be shy to speak up for the rights of people in other parts of the world and try to end their suffering. It should respond to expectations that as a democracy, India, unlike China, will promote human rights.


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