As India celebrated its victory in the Human Rights Commission in 1994 in Geneva, when Pakistan withdrew its resolution against India at the last minute on a public request from Iran, the then Leader of the Opposition, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had led the Indian delegation, together with the then Minister of State for External Affairs, said ruefully: "For a great nation like us, there was a certain humiliation involved in having to go around begging for votes on a human rights issue. Let us now use this reprieve to clean up our act in Kashmir or there will be a Geneva every few months." In the fractured polity in India today, there was no question of the opposition supporting the Government, not to speak of leading a delegation to defend India.
In 1994, the assault staged by Pakistan was part of their effort worldwide to test the waters after the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union to see whether internationalisation of the Kashmir issue would bring new pressure on India to relent on its position on Kashmir. While they failed in New York and elsewhere, there was some sense that human rights had assumed new importance after the Vienna Conference on Human Rights (1993) and the creation of the post of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. India was also facing an attack of such magnitude at the HRC for the first time and it was vital for us to avoid any condemnation.
India, therefore, spared no effort to counter the Pakistani move. The lobbying at that time was very intense and we had to side with countries like China and Iran, who were victims of western accusations of human rights violations and argued that human rights charges should not be used for political purposes. We also announced in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly that India would not support any human rights resolutions, unless they enjoyed consensus. Till the very end, how the votes would go on the Pakistan resolution, if it was put to a vote. It came as a great relief to us when Pakistan withdrew the resolution and India got a reprieve. The celebration was tinged with considerable anxiety about the possible outcome of a vote. We had also given various assurances to our potential supporters about establishing peace in Kashmir, following the worst insurgency in Kashmir during the period 1989-94.
Mercifully, the next test of international support came only now, after 25 years and the tussle was less acute this time and Pakistan did not have the courage even to move a resolution. The additional complication this time was the abrogation of Article 370, but the stature of India had grown and the international situation had changed beyond recognition. Even the big powers today face challenges of various kinds and there is not much interest in interfering in the internal affairs of others. After the events in the UN Security Council on August 16, 2019, we were fairly confident that, though the atmosphere in Geneva and the composition of the Human Rights Council (HRC) were different, Pakistan would not be able to muster support for a resolution or a statement against us.
India still did not take the HRC debate lightly. Most members of the HRC were lobbied even at the highest level, with President Ramnath Kovind visiting Iceland, Switzerland and Slovenia and a high powered delegation worked hard in Geneva itself. Various reports by NGOs and others were floating around in Geneva. The High Commissioner for Human Rights drew attention to the reports about atrocities in Kashmir and asked for restoration of normalcy. She also spoke about the moves in Assam to disenfranchise large numbers of people on suspicion of being illegal immigrants.
Though the atmosphere in the HRC was friendly towards India, there was a no holds barred exchange between Pakistan at the level of Foreign Minister and India at the official level on predictable lines. Pakistan did not confine itself to human rights issues and went on to raise political matters and sought implementation of the UN resolutions. India insisted that the developments in Kashmir were an internal matter, but assured the world that normalcy would return to Kashmir shortly and outlined measures already taken to restore communications and to withdraw restrictions. There was no resolution or statement of the HRC and the Secretary General said that there was no intention to take any action except to appeal to India and Pakistan to exercise restraint. Pakistan claimed that it had the support of all the members of the HRC. Imran Khan heightened his rhetoric and warned of serious consequences and India quietly gloated over its triumph.
India was much more aggressive this time than in 1994 on accusing Pakistan of massive human rights violations in Pakistan itself. Groups from Baluchistan and other areas in Pakistan demonstrated against Pakistan outside the UN premises to match the protests against India. The diplomats and the general public did not take much notice of these as these are familiar scenes in Geneva when the HRC meets.
The entire exercise in the HRC is seen as the pot calling the kettle black, as many of the accusers are equally guilty of the same crimes and their rankings on the list of countries who protect and promote human rights are rather low. Politicisation of human rights and discrimination between different rights, such as political, economic and social rights are the games that countries play in the Council. Those who have political power like China get away, while weak countries are castigated. Countries with abysmal human rights records take leading positions in the HRC.
An effort was made by the United States in March 2006 to strengthen the HRC by changing it from a Commission to a Council with powers similar to those of the Security Council in enforcing human rights. The US also tried to prescribe qualifications for the members of the HRC and to outline measures to expel guilty members of the HRC in the event of human rights violations in their countries. But the draft resolution submitted by the US was watered down by the developing countries to such an extent that the US voted against their own resolution and kept away from the reformed HRC. Some of the significant changes were that the 47 members would be individually elected by an absolute majority of 96 votes of the General Assembly’s members. If the Council members failed to uphold high human rights standards, they could be suspended by a two-thirds majority vote by Assembly members present at the meeting. Such tinkering made no difference to the HRC and its functioning.
Victories and defeats in the HRC are transient in nature and there is no guarantee that the same issues will not be raised again The real test is how we deal with them diplomatically and how soon normalcy is restored in Kashmir.