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India and Brazil: Time for a New Human Rights Partnership

India and Brazil have much in common. Both countries continue to grapple with improving living conditions for their people and reducing poverty.


March 29, 2013 12:15:45 pm

By G Ananthapadmanabhan and Atila Roque

India and Brazil have much in common. Both countries are swelling economies with large multicultural populations and raucous democratic politics. Both continue to grapple with improving living conditions for their people and reducing poverty. And both,unfortunately,are underachievers in standing for human rights internationally.

Unlike their open and dynamic societies,India and Brazil’s foreign policies are traditionally heavy on ‘state sovereignty’ and non-intervention,to the extent of ignoring serious human rights violations. Indian and Brazilian diplomats have tended to see concerns about human rights as a smokescreen for vested Western interests. But both countries,willingly or otherwise,may have to change their mindsets.

India and Brazil were two of the 25 countries that voted recently in favor of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council urging Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for rights abuses committed during its armed conflict. While their votes may have been influenced by other concerns,what is undeniable is the pressure that both Brazil and India faced,as aspiring global superpowers,to take a principled stand on human rights.

Domestic developments in the two countries are shifting debates about human rights. India’s interventions abroad have focused mostly on contributing to peacekeeping missions and working behind the scenes on political crises,as it did when it facilitated a dialogue between various parties in Nepal towards promoting reconciliation. But domestically,the Indian government has faced growing protests – on land acquisition,corruption and violence against women,most recently – demanding justice for its citizens.

In Brazil,the establishment of a National Truth Commission – set up to investigate rights violations committed during the military dictatorship between 1946 and 1988 – is making the country more sensitive to human rights in general and foreign policy in particular. The Commission is tasked with examining,for example,the role the Brazilian government played in political repression in South America during the 1970s and in organizing coup d´etats in Chile and Uruguay. The current Brazilian president,Dilma Rousseff,was a political prisoner in these years,and is herself a survivor of torture.

There are still many in both India and Brazil who believe that human rights are a Western concept. This is a mistake. Human rights are universal aspirations,rooted in basic conceptions of dignity. Both India and Brazil have rich traditions of tolerance and justice that promotes these values. As emerging global leaders,India and Brazil share a responsibility towards shaping a new global order that is friendlier to human rights.

They must of course begin at home. Both countries face serious issues of impunity for state violence,threats to indigenous communities,and the impacts of big development projects,and the countries must act to address these concerns.

But Brazil and India also have powerful voices that need to be heard to promote human rights around the world,including speaking out against torture,renditions,violence against migrants and other human rights violations in the United States and Europe. They can bring to international debates their experiences of dealing with the political,social and economic problems of the developing world. They can also ensure that humanitarian interventions are not used to endorse powerful countries’ agendas. They have done this in the past by highlighting the importance of investing in dialogue and cooperation instead of military threats (Brazilian diplomats call this approach “responsibility while protecting”) and they must continue to do so.

The BRICS Summit in South Africa is an opportunity for India and Brazil to emphasize their commitment to human rights. Together with South Africa,they can play a decisive role in pushing Russia and China towards more constructive positions on the armed conflict in Syria. It is crucial that both Syrian authorities and opposition groups stop attacking civilians,that aid is delivered to the population and that UN human rights monitors are deployed to curb further violations.

India and Brazil,themselves former colonies,must begin to provide the kind of inspirational leadership on human rights that others have failed to do. Only then can they become the kinds of genuine superpowers that others have failed to be.

(G Ananthapadmanabhan is Chief Executive at Amnesty International India and Atila Roque is Executive Director at Amnesty International in Brazil)

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