Of Human Rights and States

No Indian is free of the risk of human rights abuse but the problem is much worse in states such as J&K and Manipur


That people have rights is a human idea, neither natural nor divine. It evolved in society, not in the age when life was nasty brutish and short. Our rights come as between and from each other and have surely existed since families came together to form tribes. In those days rights were inextricably bound with duties unlike the standalone status they have now. The modern concept of human rights goes back to Europe when feudalism died out and the priesthood lost control over secular affairs.  They are from that perspective a product of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. Enslaving conquered people, massacres of prisoners, and rape of conquered women have all been part of human cultures.
The earliest charter of human is sometimes stated to be that recorded by Cyrus the Great of the Achaemnid dynasty of Persia in the 6th century BCE on the Cyrus Cylinder. The Edicts of Asoka prescribed uniform treatment for all religions and prohibited massacre of prisoners of war. In England the Magna Carta signed in 1215 was to become the most important document leading to the development of modern rights including that of due process. The Valladolid debate (1550-51) between Bishop Bartoleme de las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda was over the rights of American Indians. Were they free men deserving equal rights including freedom from slavery along with other Catholics as Las Casas argued, or criminals deserving slavery and serfdom as proposed by Sepulveda following  Aristotle; different classes of humans deserving differing treatment? Aristotle’s view is also reflected in Manu’s laws.
It is in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 when the British Parliament petitioned William and Mary of Orange (Netherlands) to become monarchs of England that the powers of the parliament and the people vis a vis the constitutional authority of the monarch was firstly clearly laid down. The US Declaration of Independence borrows from this document while keeping silent on the right to life liberty and happiness of Afro American slaves. Hard upon the US the French declared the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as legally enforceable rights, as compared to natural rights, and Thomas Paine brought out his book on the Rights of Man. The term ‘human rights’ was in general use by the middle of the 18th century, and by the 19th it was employed in the campaign against the slave trade.
 The 13th,   14th and 15th amendment to the US constitution freed the slaves made them full citizens and bestowed the right to vote. Women’s rights were secured by the suffragist movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The working classes got their rights codified as a result of the trade union movement in the USA and in 1941 President Roosevelt announced the Four Freedoms that all people ought to enjoy. These were freedom of speech and of worship, and freedom from want and from fear. It all culminated in the authoritative document on Human Rights, the UN Charter adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The 30 articles comprising the Charter were passed by 48 votes, with 9 countries abstaining.  These were the communist countries of East Europe, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis did not approve of Article 18 which allows a change of religion. Pakistan voted in favour of the charter at the time criticizing the position the Saudi government took. The Soviet Union and its satellites objected to the focus on individual rights as opposed to social responsibility; South Africa was opposed to equal rights for its black Africans.
The UN Charter which is the foundation of modern human rights thinking was the work of three people mainly-Rene Cassin, John Humphreys and Charles Malik, a political philosopher of Lebanese Christian origin. Are these rights universal or are they a western construct born out of the Greek, Roman, Judaeo-Christian origins of Western civilization? If they are not universal, why not, and how do they conflict with alternate views?
  In 1990 Muslim leaders met in Cairo and produced an Islamic charter of human rights, the so called Cairo declaration which was officially adopted in 2000 by all members of the Islamic Conference. This document sets human rights in terms of Shariah. According to Ali A Allawi, a former Foreign Minister of Iraq the Cairo declaration is ‘severely deficient……not being rooted in the Islamic experience or in any deep understanding of the issues at stake.’ And Allawi says, ‘while there are numerous governmental and non governmental agencies in the western world that monitor human rights abuses, the Muslim world has no organization or group that does the same.’  I am not competent to comment on the controversy over the deficiencies of the Islamic charter, but it is bound to raise questions about what are perhaps universally agreed as settled issues of gender and freedom of faith. It is inevitable that issues of moral relativism will arise in any contextual discussion. And it does pose questions about the meaning of the word universal.
 Can there be two charters; especially if they conflict on basic issues that almost everybody now accepts, namely gender and religious freedom. And how will the issue of laws made pursuant to two charters be applied in an interconnected world. Eventually, of course charters are less important than the laws that countries make to implement the rights. And the laws are less important than the will of the agency implementing the laws. Most important is the role of the elected governments-For all the pious statements made by governments how many can one think of that actually practice what they preach.
The UN charter remained a forgotten document till the 1980s when human rights  emerged on the world stage primarily as the result of NGO activity which  itself was a result of a specific European impulse and a European ethos. The Soviet bloc broke up in this period and the Organization of Islamic Countries came into existence. Iran attacked the UN charter after the fall of its Shah in January 1979. Earlier the Arab Mukhabarats and Savak in Iran had freely employed torture, carried out kidnappings and illegal executions behind the protective shadow of the cold war. The US that once stood alongside its European allies itself resorted to torture after 9/11. China and the USSR have a long history of torture and illegal executions, as have dictatorships everywhere. Third degree methods are routine for the Indian police against ordinary citizens in its lockups, not to mention the acts of security forces in conflict zones. Perhaps the only place which did uphold the principles of the UN Charter were the countries of Europe where human rights were first conceived.
Few countries if any outside Europe pay more than lip service to human rights. The dictatorships of course are notorious-Also ideologically founded states like the former communist world of which only three remain China, Cuba and North Korea; the entire Arab world and Turkey as well, Iran under the Shah and the Ayatollahs; most of the world in fact is guilty including the democracies. It was only North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand that tried to observe the Human Rights charter. The US must be excluded from the list after Guantanamo Bay and the extraordinary renditions policy. It is hard to say about the inscrutable Japanese; torture techniques were widespread during the Second World War; even today Japanese police manage to secure conviction in 99% of the criminal cases through forced confessions. India has a long and sorry record in human rights protection notwithstanding the establishment of a Human Rights Tribunal. I don’t know of a single case exposed through the deliberations of the Tribunal. Indian Police has traditionally been allowed a free hand by its political masters to assault, abuse and kill those in its custody. Justice A N Mulla of the Allahabad High Court observed in a 1961 judgment, “I say with all sense of responsibility that there is no single lawless group in the country whose record of crimes is anywhere near that of the organized unit which is known as the Indian Police Force.”
No Indian is free of the risk of human rights abuse but the problem is much worse in states such as J&K and Manipur where the citizen’s Fundamental Rights and due process under law are not considered as important as the immunity from prosecution of the armed forces. The common man suffers double jeopardy, at risk from both the police and the security forces. Too many Indians are blasé about human rights, happily deaf and blind in the national interest, even agreeable that certainn sub categories of citizens should be governed by military law. The state is constitutionally bound to operate within its laws. Catch and kill is not an option allowed by the law.
Human rights mean nothing if the State itself initiates or is complicit in their violation. Five innocent citizens were rounded up by the J&K police and killed by the army in Pathribal. Sanction to prosecution has not been given; the Supreme Court ruled that the conspiracy to kill innocent civilians is a matter for military jurisdiction. One must respect the court’s decision but will the same ruling hold if the crime is committed in Delhi next time. 

Lastupdate on : Sat, 27 Jul 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 27 Jul 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 28 Jul 2013 00:00:00 IST

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