Gearing up for U.P.R. 2012

Written by  //  September 2, 2010  //  Economic & Social Policy  //  4 Comments

Short for Universal Periodic Review, U.P.R. was introduced in 2006 by the U.N.’s newly formed Human Rights Council to encourage state compliance with international human rights law. Under the U.P.R. mechanism, UN member states periodically submit accounts of the human rights situation within their borders, and are then ‘cross-examined’ by other states who make suggestions for improvement. India was last reviewed in 2008. Since the U.P.R. happens approximately once every 4 years, we should be up again in 2012.

A brief note about the U.P.R. before moving to India’s specific engagement with it: The U.P.R. was introduced to reduce the selectivity and politicisation in the working of the Human Rights Council’s predecessor body, the Commission for Human Rights. It is designed such that each state in the UN will have its human rights records reviewed once every four years. The review is based on compliance with the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights instruments to which the State is party, voluntary pledges and commitments made by States, and applicable international humanitarian law.  The review will include documents submitted by states to the Council, reports by the OHCHR and ‘credible and reliable information provided by other relevant stakeholders’ which has been read to include civil society actors. The implementation of U.P.R. recommendations is left up to each state, though the Human Rights Council has the authority to ‘address as appropriate, cases of persistent non-cooperation with the mechanism’.  The two most important features of the U.P.R. are, to my mind, the introduction state-to-state peer review in the context of human rights, and a periodic self reflection by each state on its human rights law compliance.

India was last reviewed in 2008. The National Report, submitted on 6th March, 2008 by the government, is notable for the complete non-mention of any serious human rights problem the country is facing. It reads instead like a school civics textbook with historical anecdotes about how the constitution was adopted and what DPSPs are, while doing token lip-service to the many institutions that have been created to account for the needs of ‘minorities’.

More meaty is the submission by the OHCHR and civil society groups – they mention inter alia how India has still not signed many crucial human rights conventions, has still not implemented the few it has signed, has not complied with several UN treaty special procedures, has retained the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990, while caste-based discrimination still exists, religious minorities still face persecution, stigmatization and marginalization and the trafficking of women and children is rampant. 42 countries commented during India’s 2008 review, and many recommendations were made.

Now, many commentators would say that the Indian government’s reluctance to engage in a real and substantive exercise of self reflection on its human rights practices is realistic, and perhaps even justified, for several reasons. Many others argue (more legitimately) that the U.P.R. itself is flawed for many reasons, and this is true. However I argue that, despite truth in the latter argument, taking the U.P.R. seriously is a worthwhile enterprise for India in 2012 for several reasons.

First, quite simply, having a strong human rights record is a good thing in itself. It is part of what governments should do for their citizens. People have recently taken this argument a step further and said that human rights are important in a country’s foreign policy , and are part of the ‘national interest’ emphasised by international relations scholars and political science theorists. Secondly, with a show of good faith vis-a-vis its human rights record, the Indian government can actually build strong bonds with civil society groups that work on aspects of rights-protection, thus ultimately reducing its compliance burden. Thirdly, having a good human rights record and demonstrating compliance with existing norms is important from the point of view of eventually getting elected to the Human Rights Council itself. Increasingly, countries with bad records are losing elections for the few coveted spots on this body. The U.P.R. is now a requirement for all UN member states, and India is already criticized in the international community for its poor record on international human rights law. Taking the U.P.R. seriously would help remedy this. Fourthly, several treaties that India is signatory to have similar reporting mechanisms that India has persistently defaulted on. Engaging in one, solid stock taking exercise every 4 years will allow us to fulfil other requirements as well. And finally, I firmly believe (contrary to many realist readings of international relations today) that a country with a good record of compliance with international law gains tangible, reputational advantages in the international sphere for this reason alone.

What then should we do?  Most importantly, we should begin a serious enquiry into how, and to what extent, we have implemented the recommendations that came out of our 2008 U.P.R. Furthermore, there is space in the U.P.R. process today for ‘voluntary pledges’, or obligations that states can take upon themselves to improve their  human rights record. Again, this is something we should give serious thought to. Finally, we have the option of starting early and engaging constructively with the various stake-holders involved in human rights protection in our country. The U.S. recently submitted their U.P.R. National Report and – while much is wrong with current American human rights policy – before the final submission, the government held a series of conferences all across the country, collaborating with civil society groups and academicians.

Unfortunately, all of this is time-intensive and requires some serious political will. The 2012 U.P.R. – for it many flaws – presents a valuable opportunity for the government today. Hopefully the government will make the most of it.

About the Author

Sanhita is a graduate of National Law School of India University, Bangalore and currently enrolled in a joint degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard Law School. Her interests in economic and social policy, diplomacy and human rights are only secondary to her penchant for writing mushy romantic novellas for Mills and Boons.

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4 Comments on "Gearing up for U.P.R. 2012"

  1. Political Science Textbooks September 3, 2010 at 2:43 pm ·

    However, third majority support needed for inclusion in the program. Political Science Textbooks

  2. Arghya September 3, 2010 at 7:17 pm ·

    Very nice piece Sanhita. I however disagree with most of the points. I see where you’re coming from but I think apart from getting some brownie points for international compliance, complying with these things is an additional bureaucratic headache. And ideally one which we shouldn’t take too seriously because very few people do. All rights enforcement must be domestic- that is effective, there are pressures which make you do it and there is a vibrant democratic process to correct you. UPR is good for transitioning states and such like- am not sure of its utility for India apart from being an administrative burden.

  3. Sanhita September 3, 2010 at 9:18 pm ·

    Thanks Arghya!
    I think you make two points, both very important ones. First that the U.P.R has no utility because all rights enforcement should be domestic. As a matter of practicality it usually is, but there have been empirical studies which show that nations which commit internationally to HR obligations (in the case of certain classes of rights) are more likely to follow-up on them than those who have not.
    Second, that the U.P.R is an administrative burden. Of course it is, but if we believe that it serves a purpose, then we shouldn’t shy away from it. More importantly, we dont really have an option – we have to submit a report – so its better to do a good job than a shoddy one thats probably as expensive. And finally, some other treaties we are signatory to have similar reporting obligations. Doing it well once will allow us to comply with the other obligations in the cheapest possible way.

  4. Karan Nagpal September 4, 2010 at 10:22 am ·

    Thanks for the comprehensive article. Is there any place where we can read about the recommendations made for India in 2008?

    While human rights protection is intrinsically important, I doubt if mainstream Indian politics will ever realise this value in Kashmir, or in the Naxal areas. Both religious and caste-based violence has frequently received official patronage from both sides of Indian politics. And when any foreign or multilateral body tells us this, we raise a storm of national pride and sovereignty.

    I think the most imp thing that will make India realise the value is the fact that we can’t be permanent members of the UNSC unless we improve the international perception of our human rights record.

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