Getting human rights right

Issue 15 - Jun 2008

Sandeep Balakrishna, Salil Tripathi & Rohit Pradhan

SANDEEP BALAKRISHNA: That the UPA government has shown itself as being incompetent checking and tackling terror is well known. However, what escapes the public eye is a sustained intellectual attack that is rapidly undermining the basic principles of democracy. It lies in the relentless attempts to legitimise terrorism and political violence, cloaked in several noble-sounding garbs—the language of human rights being the most notable of them.

…apart from the obvious immediate impact of derailing the public discourse, this perverse approach hampers investigations. Activists claiming to champion ‘human rights’ have shown that they can drum up enough media and intellectual support to stall and mislead investigations. The case of Mohammed Afzal Guru and Zaheera Shaikh are prominent examples of media and intellectual activism gone awry.

Given the frequency and boldness of attacks on Indian territory, it is time to rethink priorities. Intellectual defence of terrorism is deadlier than the actual act. [More »]
SALIL TRIPATHI: Human rights folks will be unreasonable, everywhere, to restrain the state. This is not to defend them, but to explain where they come from. The moment they become “solution providers” they have to begin modifying the message and make it more context-specific. Once they do that, the moral sharpness of their message—that the victim is most important (and they sometimes exalt victims to a holy status)—is lost. This is not to judge victims or human rights groups.

The point about human rights activists in India is that like Teesta Setalvad, Sandeep Pandey, Aruna Roy, Binayak Sen and others, should remain unreasonable. They may even be selective – nothing prevents from others to pick up cases and causes these individuals do not. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers. Think Benjamin Franklin—societies that place safety over liberty deserve neither safety, nor liberty.

However, in the context of Mr Sandeep’s point above, there is some awareness growing among human rights folks, that they should not forget victims of terror. If you see Amnesty International, they issued a statement after Jaipur blasts in which they condemned those who committed the acts. They called 9/11 “a crime against humanity”. At a recent human rights seminar in London, two important things came out: one, that if human rights lawyers don’t need to explain why torture is bad (because it is, period), why can’t they also argue that terrorism is bad, period? Why do rights advocates contextualise terrorism? Why do they call it “the weapon of the powerless” when those who perpetrate terror are extremely powerful, often woman-hating Neanderthals? Why do victims of torture get elevated when they are themselves human rights abusers, to the status of human rights defenders and get honoured? Yes, they are victims when they are tortured or detained without due process of law, and they should get legal access and not get tortured. But they need not be on a pedestal. Merely because you were in Gitmo does not make you qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

ROHIT PRADHAN: Human rights are important—the state’s moral authority rests on its ability to distinguish its methods from those of the terrorists. Remove that distinction and the state’s preservation becomes a matter of convenience rather than a moral imperative. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to judge the state from a different yardstick vis-à-vis the non-state actors it confronts

…The letter ‘concerned citizens’ wrote in the wake of the Jaipur blasts illustrates the dangers of viewing human rights in a vacuum. Even before the dust had settled on the Jaipur blasts; even before the police had properly begun investigating the attacks (let alone made arrests), ‘concerned citizens’ released a letter designed, it appears, expressly to obstruct investigations and demoralise the police. It is not being argued that the letter writers don’t want the perpetrators of the Jaipur blasts to be punished, but advancing wild conspiracy theories and demanding the appointment of extra-constitutional authorities is hardly conducive to a full and fair police investigation.

It is conceded that human rights organisations cannot function as part of the state; their independence is essential to their credibility. However, it is equally true that they cannot function or make a positive impact if they pretend to operate as Alice-in-wonderland disconnected from the wider society. Indiscriminately targeting the state is easy; it may result in newspaper headlines and instant television stardom but it will not advance the cause of human rights.

Extra:SALIL TRIPATHI: (Response to Mr Pradhan) The human rights discourse is catching up on abuses by non-state actors, and it has been doing so for a long time. Latin American armed groups and urban guerrillas were target of criticism by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International since the 1970s. All responsible human rights groups have condemned Al Qaeda; rarely have they tried to “explain” terrorism in their reports.
But dealing with non-state actors is a real challenge: states sign conventions; non-state actors don’t. All that a human rights group can do is to hold the perpetrator to account to laws that apply. International humanitarian laws (Geneva Conventions) do apply to all actors; human rights laws don’t, because under human rights, states are duty-bearers, and people are rights-holders. Given that, do we really want unelectable non-state actors to be duty-bearers for protecting human rights? Hence the focus on state – it has signed and ratified treaties. It must honor those.

Finally, no responsible human rights group has called what happened in Gujarat a “genocide”. Pogrom, yes, massacre, yes, but not a genocide. Individuals may have said that, but surely they don’t represent the entire human rights community. Yes, the success of human rights groups does depend on democracy and the rule of law. But when the state violates those, the human rights group must speak up, so that others can enjoy their rights. And as regards human rights groups working to improve prison conditions in Kashmir – organisations like the Red Cross do play that role. Amnesty and others are rightly concerned that some of the people in those jails – tortured or not – should not be there in the first place; and if they have to be, bring them to trial, immediately.