What is the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review?
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process established by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (HRC), under which the human rights record of each of the UN’s 193 member countries is peer-reviewed every four or five years. The UN created the HRC in 2006 after several member countries complained that its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, was vulnerable to bullying by powerful countries (such as the US) which prevented, obfuscated or filibustered the review of their friends and allies (such as Israel). Under the HRC’s UPR, every country has the opportunity to make recommendations on every other country’s human rights record. The first UPR took place in 2008, the second in 2012, and the third is ongoing.
Between May 1 and May 12, 14 states were reviewed, including India, on May 4. Then Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi led the Indian delegation, which comprised officials from the Ministries of External Affairs, Home, Women & Child Development, Social Justice & Empowerment, Minority Affairs and Rural Development, and the NITI Aayog. Ahead of the May 4 meeting, the world community made 250 recommendations to India to improve its human rights record. These were made to a “troika” of countries responsible for India (every country has a troika, drawn through lots) — Latvia, the Philippines and South Africa. Presenting India’s defence, Rohatgi made a key promise: that India would ratify the UN Convention Against Torture, which it hasn’t for 20 years.
So, what happened on September 21 in Geneva?
India faced the HRC again and promised to “accept” 152 of the 250 recommendations, and “noted” the rest. UN procedure doesn’t allow recommendations to be “rejected”, so the word “noted” essentially means a refusal to accept. This was the result of negotiations since May, with India seeking to persuade all those countries that had made recommendations, to not escalate the matter. Anything other than a “consensus” when its UPR report was adopted on September 21, would have been deeply embarrassing, as it would have implied moral castigation of the world’s largest democracy.
On September 21, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Rajiv Chander (who on September 12 had replied to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s criticism of India with a “sabka saath, sabka vikas” slogan) delivered the Indian statement with its “accepted” and “noted” recommendations, and promised again that India would sign the long-pending UN Convention Against Torture. The UPR was adopted by consensus, which meant the HRC was satisfied with India’s promises — a significant victory for New Delhi.
How are the recommendations compiled?
The process starts about a year before the review, when diplomats of the country in question in Geneva and at headquarters begin consultations on the human rights issues expected to be raised. Previous reviews, NGO reports, media debates, and reports of various UN committees (like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) are fodder for countries to ask questions of other countries. Simultaneously, discussions are begun in the five regional groups, created along geopolitical lines.
Since any country can make a recommendation about another country, these are sent to the troika nations, who are the rapporteurs for the country in question, about 3-4 months before the review. The troika collates the questions in consultation with the human rights desk officer of the country in question. The review lasts three and a half hours. Every country that has asked a question is given a minute and a half to make its point. The friendly ones usually try and filibuster, so the time for the critical countries is reduced.
And did India have a friendly troika?
Yes. South Africa and India have had very close ties since India led the international struggle against apartheid. Today, they collaborate in the BRICS and IBSA forums. The Philippines, a US ally, is seen to be friendly to India because it wants New Delhi’s support against China on claims in the South China Sea. And Latvia is really too small to matter.
In many ways, India’s troika friends were helpful in shaping, or perhaps mitigating, some of the severe criticism of India’s human rights record.
What was so important about India promising to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture?
India signed the treaty 20 years ago, but never ratified it. In 2010, the Bill was sent to a Parliamentary Committee whose recommendations were never accepted, and the Bill lapsed in 2014. At Geneva, 30 countries, including Germany, Australia, Japan, Israel and Russia, called on India to ratify the convention. Rohatgi argued that “the concept of torture is completely alien to our culture and it has no place in the governance of the nation”, but promised to ratify the Convention on September 21. India had made a similar promise in 2012, when it faced the second UPR cycle.
What were the main recommendations made to India?
Countries including Switzerland and Pakistan asked for the abolition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA); several countries like Germany and the United States said the use of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act to harass and intimidate NGOs should end; 10 countries raised concerns over restrictions to freedom of assembly and association; 15 countries said they were concerned about growing violence, including mob violence. Ten countries asked India to criminalise marital rape, and 30 said they were concerned about growing violence against women. Most of the 152 recommendations that India accepted pertained to sustainable development goals related to eliminating poverty, access to safe drinking water, sanitation and improving protection for women and children.
The recommendations are not binding, but they carry the moral imprimatur of the international community behind them. India is proud of its free press and independent judiciary, and of being the world’s largest democracy. Severe human rights violations do not go with these attributes.
The next UPR is in 2022.