India has duty to use global influence to speak out on human rights – UN official

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay

25 March 2009 – A top United Nations official has hailed India’s vibrant democratic and legal institutions, while calling on the world’s largest democracy to repeal “dated and colonial-era” laws and to speak out about human rights violations, particularly in its own region.

“I encourage India to speak out on its own, as well as in concert with others, whenever the human rights agenda that it cherishes and seeks to pursue domestically becomes of concern elsewhere,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said during her two-day visit to the South Asian nation.

In an address to the National Human Rights Commission in Delhi on Monday, she urged India “to continue to support freedom and rights wherever they are at stake, and particularly regarding the alarming situations in its own region, such as those in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.”

It was the first visit for Ms. Pillay, a national of South Africa whose ancestors hailed from India, to the country as UN human rights chief. She noted that both countries, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, were able to “shed colonialism and the repressive rule of the few.”

Highlighting the gains made by India since its independence, she said that the strength of India’s democratic and legal institutions, as well as that of a highly engaged civil society and a free press, “rests on solid foundations.”

She mentioned in particular the role played by the country’s judiciary in enforcing human rights, providing relief for individuals and ensuring that the Government honours constitutionally guaranteed rights, as well as “groundbreaking” judgments by the Supreme Court.

“Yet despite all these gains, the challenges that India faces, as is the case in many other countries, are manifold,” Ms. Pillay stated. For example, Although India enjoys an array of laws and institutions designed to combat all forms of discrimination, religious and caste-based prejudices remain entrenched. In many states long-standing grievances of minorities, lower castes, or the poor have turned into violence.

“Of particular concern is caste-based discrimination which is still deplorably widespread, despite efforts by the Government and the judiciary to eradicate this practice,” she noted.

In addition, the High Commissioner said India should repeal those dated and colonial-era laws that breach contemporary international human rights standards. These range from laws which provide the security forces with excessive emergency powers, including the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, to laws that criminalize homosexuality.

“Such legal vestiges of a bygone era are at odds with the vibrant dynamics and forward thrust of large sectors of the Indian polity.”

She also emphasized the need to properly investigate hundreds of cases of disappearances that have been reported in Kashmir “to bring a sense of closure to the families who for far too long have been awaiting news.”

The High Commissioner’s visit to India followed a five-day mission to neighbouring Nepal.


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