Human rights has always been a contested issue in foreign policy matters. Strategic experts advise that human rights should play no role in foreign policy. They believe that states have only interests and power has no ethics. This is patently wrong. Apart from interests, the power of the state has to have norms if it has to have any legitimacy. For this, a state has to believe in rights.
Recently, India has taken a somewhat different stand with the prime minister pressured not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting in Sri Lanka on account of human rights violation. India took the soft option of sending the foreign minister. So, what is the relation of human rights with foreign policy?
States and those who govern them feel that state sovereignty is absolute and indivisible and whatever happens within a country should not be questioned by outsiders. For example, Sri Lanka currently feels that no other country, especially India, should question their record in war crimes during the recently concluded civil war. They take umbrage in the belief that talking of human rights is a threat to their national security. The argument is that as an elected regime they can legitimately use as much violence that they deem necessary to protect their nation from threat and disintegration. The question then is should the world community at large forget about human rights and each state stick to their concept of state sovereignty, allowing each other to deal with their own citizens with as much violence as they wish? This is where the human rights and foreign policy debate come in.
The very concept of human rights developed after the unacceptable genocide of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Once the Second World War was over and the tragedy exposed, the world powers declared that never again should such genocide be allowed and the universal declaration of civil rights made the basis of the covenant of the United Nations. Since then the movement and consciousness for human rights has grown.
The problem on the issue of human rights and foreign policy has arisen because the way the question of human rights has been often used by states to intervene in other states for their own geostrategic interests. For example, US intervention and wars in Indo-China, where the concept of “saving” Vietnam, etc. from communist rule was used and hundreds of thousands killed in the process. Secondly, great powers have in many instances pointed to the abuse of human rights of some states while ignoring abuses in other states. Thus for example, the human rights abuse in Syria and Iran have been of concern to the human rights consciousness of the US and European Union but they have conveniently bypassed human rights and women’s rights abuses in countries that are counted as their own allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Pakistan. Because of such exceptions and justifications the very concept of human rights has been politicised.
The consequence is that whenever a country violates human rights it either tries to cover up by pointing its finger at some other countries, or does geostrategic bargaining. For example, Russia did massive aerial bombing of Chechnya as a separatist movement created a civil war situation there in 1994-96. The EU and USA rightly critiqued the Russian human rights record. But as soon as the US war in terror began and it needed Russian and Central Asian support to strike at Afghanistan, the Russians and the US negotiated and the charges on human rights in Chechnya were dropped.
Often, allegations are made against human rights activists by their own state, for example, even in India that they are threats to national security. But the reality is that human rights are the very fundamental principles of our Indian Constitution. The right to life, liberty, freedom of expression, the right to get justice, and all the Fundamental Rights are nothing less than human rights. Therefore, it is the duty of the Indian state and its law-abiding citizens to uphold human rights.
It is also true that India has violated human rights in some instances, especially in disturbed areas. We in India do not like other countries reminding us about this. But does that mean that we continue hiding this violation and then keep quiet about human rights violations in other countries, because of a quid pro quo? Perhaps this is what could have been the deal between India and Sri Lanka, if it was not for the actions by the Tamil masses and their determination to put pressure on the central leadership on the question of war crimes and the need for transitional justice in Sri Lanka.
Now the genie of human rights is out of the foreign policy bottle. India has come out openly putting pressure on another state to correct their human rights record. This is a good thing because overall the world will be a safer and more law-abiding space if all countries stopped genocide on their own citizens, protect minority rights, and create robust institutions and an independent judiciary to ensure these rights.
If India believes in this, why should Indian foreign policy not be frank about it? At the same time, India should not hesitate to critique those who use human rights only for geostrategic intervention. Further, most democratic countries are likely to be pressured by their people to defend the human rights of their compatriots in other countries.
The idea that foreign policy only reflects the exclusive voice of its chosen policy makers has given way. People at the popular level want a say in how India is dealing with its neighbours. Indian policy makers will have to balance this with a national consensus and chose a middle path, where both issues of rights, common development and security will have to balanced. The recent past shows that human rights will impact foreign policy — whether the policy makers like it or not.
The writer is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.