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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

South Asia Is Cynical About HR

Indian Express
December 25, 2007


by Ratna Kapur

Casting a glance across the South Asian region,
social and political protests abound. States
continue to oppress and exclude sections of their
citizenry from political participation or use the
very tools of law to justify incarceration in the
name of national security. As Sri Lanka quietly
slides back into civil war, Pakistan sets up a
facade of democracy, Nepal remains paralysed by
political equivocation, Burma silences its
protesting monks and India still drags its heels
over providing justice to Muslims in Gujarat and
Sikhs in Delhi, the question arises as to why the
region remains so afflicted by political
instability, civil conflict and reactionary
nationalism? Sixty years after the adoption of
the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, most
countries in the region face
serious instability,
impunity and human rights abuses.

There is no comprehensive explanation why
compliance with human rights remains such an
elusive possibility within our region. But there
is no question that human rights advocates must
take a moment to reflect on the ways in which
human rights have at times been implicated in
producing some of the harms we are witnessing
today. When the US bombs Afghanistan partly in
the name of women's rights, or proponents of
Hindutva use equality rights discourse to attack
special measures for Muslims, there is a need to
interrogate how and why human rights are
susceptible to promoting such agendas.

Human rights constantly need to be addressed
within the context in which they operate rather
than be linked to some universal prescription to
'do good'. In countries such as India or Sri
Lanka, the forces of reactionary nationalism have
pushed in the
direction of 'one nation, one
people' to justify the incarceration, if not the
extermination of those who refuse to comply with
such a claim. In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa
government has declared an all-out war against
the LTTE and the elimination of its entire cadre.
The government's hand is strengthened by the
Buddhist Sinhalese nationalists. They have
characterised any proposal for the opening of a
full office by the High Commissioner for Human
Rights as nothing more than foreign interference
and an abrogation of Sri Lanka's sovereignty and
national integrity. Politically, while the High
Commissioner's visit in October to Sri Lanka
marked a high water point in drawing attention to
the impunity with which atrocities were being
inflicted by all sides, the government failed to
address the seriousness of these complaints in
its watered-down proposal to simply chronicle
abuses rather than effectively
redress them.

In Nepal, the failure of the Seven Party Alliance
to ensure polls in November after the successful
people's movement has dashed expectations for a
stable democratic structure in the short term.
Many issues thrown up by the decade-long armed
conflict - which resulted in disappearances and
human rights violations by all sides - remain
unresolved. In Pakistan, a military dictatorship
is attempting to refashion itself as a
standard-bearer for democracy. Even while
everyone recognises that in this instance the
emperor has no clothes, Washington has declared
Musharraf a true democrat. Meanwhile, the human
rights violations of lawyers, the subordination
of the judiciary, and the impunity with which the
government conducts its affairs, has amplified
the voice of religious fundamentalists, and
shrunk the space for civil society. This does not
bode well for any future progress on human
in that country.

While India stands firm in its commitment to the
democratic process, the Sangh Parivar continues
to attack special provisions for Muslims and
appeasement as non-secular and violating
constitutional commitments to equality. It is
indeed a prime example of how rights can be used
to advance non-progressive agendas and are not
per se liberatory nor emancipatory. At the same
time, the Left has lost the plot in its
intransigent opposition to the nuclear deal. The
deal promotes the human right to development and
has the ability to transform the lives of the

The history of human rights has not been a long
one towards progress. But the Janus-faced aspect
of human rights needs to be acknowledged. While
they can be used to advance equality, liberty and
freedom, it is also at the same time informed by
racial, religious and gender superiority, all of
which are used to
justify the exclusion of human
rights protections to a host of people.

The exclusive potential of human rights remains
evident in all countries in our region. It is a
site of power, where different visions of the
world are being fought out. To cede this terrain
would enable less progressive forces to define
the meaning of human rights. It is a messy
terrain, where ultimately mere good intentions do
not always result in progressive ends, and where
quite clearly virtue does not always move in the
direction of the virtuous.

The writer is director, Centre for Feminist Legal Research

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always want to defend peace, justice, peoples' right to love each other and live with dignity,struggles against parochial visions and hatred;instinctively a defender of socialist and democratic values