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October 6, 1999


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Robinson Hails India's Human Rights Gains

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Mary Robinson, the President of Ireland between 1990 and 1997, in her new avatar as the under-secretary-general of human rights, has been working during the past two years to create international awareness about human rights.

Robinson, 55, based in Geneva, was in New York last week to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

In an exclusive interview with Prakash M Swamy, she discussed a wide variety of topics.

Why is India being criticized for human rights violations in reports although it has been at pains to awaken the global conscience that it is combating international and cross-border terrorism?

I am encouraged by the commitment in the framework set by the Asia Pacific forum to addressing the issues of human rights. Most of the issues addressed in that forum are to encourage the setting up of a national human rights constitution. And India has made a significant contribution. When I visited India in February last, I was impressed by its commitment. We share the belief that education on human rights and strategies for economic and social rights invite development.

I appreciate the work done by the National Human Rights Commission in India and I think it's quite a pathfinder for looking at individual complaints. I know it handles a lot of individual complaints every year, say 80,000 or so, which is a very substantial case load. Besides individual complaints, it also looks at trends of potential discrimination such as against the girl child in the area of education.

And that 's a very impressive figure and I can use the example as a good practice for national commission of human rights in other regions. By doing that more and more we try to share ways of doing that will be effective.

What are your priorities in addressing these global issues threatening to engulf many a nation?

From the beginning of my term, that is two years ago, I have laid considerable emphasis on the importance of being strong on both civil and political rights and also on economic, social and cultural rights. They spur development to a great extent. In that framework, the Asia Pacific Forum is very vibrant and dynamic which I would not have expected, say, two or three years ago. This is very encouraging and it's based on looking at the best practices and practical ways to move forward. It involves national human rights institutions and NGOs and not just representatives of governments.

We hear complaints that human rights is being used as a stick by the West to get Third World countries to accept its viewpoint?

When it comes to addressing issues of adherence to human rights obligations or even, in some cases violations, then naturally I work at the national level and work individually in countries. And again the dialogue is quite constructive.

I am aware of this viewpoint and this is the one I am keen to discuss. I have an Irish background. Ireland, as you know, was colonized, suffered terrible famine and immigration of its people. Our struggle for freedom is like India's for its independence.

We remember our past and that's why I emphasize the importance of being strong on our bill of rights -- economic, social and cultural -- in particular, for advancing the importance of the right of development.

How far have you succeeded in that effort?

That's the explicit part of my mandate as high commissioner and from the very beginning these areas have been very important to me. I would like to work in a more practical way to have a benchmark to measure how we can secure our economic, social and cultural rights and advance our right to development.

That means we have to look at what happens at the international level with international institutions and at the impact of structural adjustments and policies that can have a devastating effect on the urban sectors. Also debt burden of developing countries is assuming to become a human rights issue and I have mentioned this several times in public.

But more than half the world's population are not even aware that they have rights?

That's the challenge. It is now being responded to positively within regions, especially in the Asia Pacific region. We need more debate, dialogue and more education on human rights. We need to create more opportunities for people to know about human rights. It can be strengthened by increasing their awareness. If you know you have rights, it puts you on a stronger wicket.

Access to education is a basic human right. It's also one on which legal obligations have been accepted by the state. You can't say absolutely today that it must be achieved by everybody. But there is a commitment to substantially make progress in access to education, health care, food, safe water.

We should also ensure while determining macroeconomic policies in budgets and the whole approach to the economy that governments do bear in mind the rights of vulnerable citizens. The international community through its structure and financial institutions brings much better focus on how to support the policies of the government that furthers economic, social and cultural rights.

Are you satisfied with India's track record of human rights?

India is being rightly admired for being the largest democracy in the world. Democracy is not an easy system and it's a system that has to be resolved, supported and it's complicated. And we see that in elections and in other ways. India has prided itself on being a pluralistic state. But, of late, I have been concerned about attacks on minorities, including the Christian minorities, also attacks on caste minorities.

They have approached me through the working group of minorities and pleaded their cause. While I have praised India's strength, these are the issues that your country must address seriously. I am concerned given the commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and support for the strength of democracy, more focus is not put on ensuring access to education, particularly for the girl child.

Educating girl children and women means development of that region or state. International organizations such as UNDP, UNICEF, WHO and all other major organizations focus on the link between advancing the position of the girl child and women and overall wider community development. I equally link human rights and development now.

If you look at transnational co-operation in decision-making, it is increasingly looking toward stability, good human rights records and transparency in operations and India has much to gain in continuing its commitment in the area of human rights.

What is your comment on the abuse of human rights in Pakistan in the light of the secretary of state's remarks on the attacks on anti-government agitators?

There are a number of deep concerns in human rights issue in relation to Pakistan. When I am detailing concerns about human rights issues, I would like to address those to representatives of the governments first and link them with the civil society. There is a very strong and courageous NGO movement and civil society in Pakistan with which I am closely working.

It is appropriate that, when I have tough things to say, I should preferably address the government and the authorities concerned, who are responsible, rather than the media. In view of the important position I am in, I deal with each country separately and I tell each face-to-face if there are tough things to say.

What about Sri Lanka's never-ending ethnic strife that is taking a heavy toll for almost two decades now?

I follow the situation in Sri Lanka very closely. It is a strong supporter of regional co-operation [SAARC]. We are in touch with its permanent mission in Geneva which shares a commitment for human rights. The recent meeting held in Sri Lanka where our people were involved too supported upholding human rights despite inherent problems.

The country had great human rights defenders such as Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, who was killed in tragic circumstances recently. I had met him on a number of occasions and it really struck me how admired he was in his country for upholding human rights.

Sri Lanka has had too much violence over the years and I am very much concerned about it. I try to focus on it within Sri Lanka and speak to the government which is working hard and courageously to forge a reconciliation.

Do you foresee a solution to the vexatious LTTE problem in the island-nation in the foreseeable future?

I would be reasonably hopeful that a solution will come for the ethnic strife. People are very weary of the impact of violence and the terrible situation it has landed them in. Also it doesn't help in building confidence in economic development. All of these factors will help to have more political will to find a solution.

We hear more and more about terrorism unleashed by those in uniform, be it the police or the army, against helpless unarmed citizens...

When violations of human rights are carried out by those in uniforms -- be it police or military -- and who carry the authority of the state against vulnerable citizens, then... the international community has to step in and remind the government of its commitment... not to violate human rights of its citizens.

That's why we have the mechanism of special rapporteur on torture, extrajudicial killing, on violence against women. We care about citizens who are vulnerable, terrorized and threatened by those in uniform who have an obligation to protect them.

What about violence unleashed by private armies raised by politicians in Third World countries to protect themselves?

We are equally worried at the increasing violence unleashed by non-state actors of terrorist groups and militia, mercenary groups within the nations such as private armies. They increasingly pose a problem and are a terrible threat to the peaceful civilian population. They are a threat to children, women and older people. Governments ask the UN as to what we are doing against these private armies and non-state actors.

We recognize that we have to address this difficult situation. It's more straightforward as a violation if it's carried out by someone in uniform but it is more difficult when the same violence is carried out by private armies.

We have to look at the link between international human rights law and international humanitarian law. We are now marking the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convention that says that, even in times of war, civilians have the right to be protected by governments.

Do you see a nexus between politicians and private armies?

It is important that there should not be a nexus between politicians and private armies. We are aware that there is a nexus in some places and it is totally unacceptable. It's important we do not go back to the time of using the force of arms instead of political solution.

We must honor and value democracy in countries that are accustomed to freedom and democracy such as India. My heart went out to the people of East Timor where 98 per cent of them voted for the first time and 80 percent voted for their own independence. Once they got a chance for self-determination, violent attempts were made to set that aside.

It reminds us of the new South Africa where we saw people queuing up for hours to vote for a change. It is important to have the essence of the gains of democracy though it can be difficult to always sustain and support the conflicts that democracy demands.

Do you support the view that the situation in Kashmir is similar to East Timor?

I am aware of the extraordinarily deep and complex issues and human rights concerns in relation to Kashmir. They are being studied by my office. Because of the recent heightening of tensions and conflicts there, our concerns have grown too.

However, we would always like to be objective. We are not political in that sense and we don't want to have our human rights approach politicized. But there are real human rights concerns and violations against the rights of the population in Kashmir. I think we want to look at it more and more closely and obviously politically, it's very sensitive.

Yes, it does evoke very serious human rights concerns but we are studying it. Kashmir is more complex than any other issue of its kind because of the complex overall political framework.

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