Is the human rights protection regime in India crumbling?
The recent summoning of Chhattisgarh officials by the National Human Rights Commissions (NHRC) for abuse of power is significant as it underlines expectations from the human rights protection institutions in the country to deliver on their mandate on which they have been lacking lately.
Like in many other countries, the human rights protection regime was initiated in the country after Geneva world conference on human rights in 1993.
Consequently, the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHRA) was passed by the parliament in 1993 for “better protection of human rights” in the country. As a result, a national level commission was set up at the center with the provision for State Human Rights Commissions (SHRC) in the states.
The task of protection and promotion of human rights was to be carried out in the country under the leadership of NHRC, headed by a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court. This, however, has not been realized as is evident from the Supreme Court’s observation in Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association versus Union of India case in July this year when the court censured the commission for its inefficient functioning.
The court criticized the commission for closing down some cases of police killings in Manipur “without any application of mind’’ and on the basis of a magisterial inquiry which is essentially an administrative finding.
The observations of the court are well-founded given that the commission has an investigation wing headed by a DGP rank officer and it is expected to investigate cases of custodial killings instead of routinely asking for reports from the local administration. The court went on to describe the commission as a toothless tiger underlining its ineffectiveness.
The court’s comments echo a general feeling among the human rights activists in the country that the NHRC has failed to fix accountability for serious human rights violations, inspire SHRCs and send strong message to the government on important issues related to human rights.
For many years now, the commission failed to take a concrete stance on death penalty despite documented studies (Lethal Lottery: The Death Penalty in India; Amnesty India-PUCL) that it is closely related to one’s capacity to access justice and is usually awarded to the poorest, without leading to deterrence to crime. While the outgoing Chairman of the Commission, Justice Balakrishnan supported the death penalty, the commission never clarified its position on it.
The commission failed to take remedial measures when the government cancelled several human rights organisation’s licenses under Foreign Contribution (regulation) Act, without which they cannot solicit funds from abroad. It is alleged that the government’s move was vindictive and a violation of the UN declaration on HRDs that confers on CSOs the right to solicit, receive and utilize resources.
The commission has come to this pass as the government, irrespective of political party, seems to have lost interest in human rights’ protection and promotion, thereby, encouraging a façade rather than substance on the matter and failing to appoint credible people to these institutions.
In 2010, the government appointed a chairman of NHRC who faced serious allegations of corruption. The matter dragged in the Supreme Court for years and was subsequently withdrawn by the government on the plea that the judge concerned had retired from the office.
Among all the people, it has chosen to appoint retired police officers to the commission. While the previous government appointed a former chief of anti-corruption bureau, CBI and a former director of anti-terror agency, NIA as the member of the NHRC, the present government nominated a BJP leader to be its member. By this count under the category of “persons having knowledge of human rights” the present commission has one former police officer who is a terrorism expert and other, if confirmed, would be an active politician.
Appointment of police officers to the human rights commissions is incongruous given that majority of the complaints made to these commissions relate to police abuse of power and the appointees are more likely to be hostage to old group and professional loyalty than having commitment to fixing accountability on human rights violations.
This cynical and indifferent approach to institutions of national importance has weakened the human rights regime in the country considerably sending a damaging message across the country with ripple effects at the state level. As a result, out of 24 SHRCs, 10 are without chairpersons, nine have vacancy of members and some, including Maharashtra- with consistently high police custodial deaths- have retired police officers as members on their bench.
As an effect, the majority of these state commissions are dysfunctional, leaving people without faith in them. For instance, Soni Sori, a victim of police atrocity and sexual violence did not expect justice from the Chhattisgarh SHRC, but when she approached the NHRC, here too, she was disappointed as it was quick to give a clean chit to the state government.
As the country’s expensive judiciary reels under the burden of nearly 30 million pending cases, human rights protections institutions are nearly defunct across the country leaving people little protection against major and minor human rights violations by the state, society and corporate.
Clearly, the government has a lot to explain and do if it cares for its constitutional and international obligations.