Thank you for giving me the floor.
I speak on behalf of the National Human Rights Commission of India of which I have recently been appointed the Chairperson. I had earlier had the privilege of serving as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India between 1998-2001.
The experience of the Indian Commission indicates, as does my personal experience both in the Supreme Court and now in the Commission, that there is a natural symbiosis, indeed a synergy, between the work of an independent judiciary and an independent human rights institution.
We therefore agree with the view of Mr. Vieira de Mello, eloquently expressed earlier in this Session, that the key to the protection of human rights around the world lies in the development of independent “national protection systems based on the rule of law.”
We welcome, in particular, his emphasis on the need for “practical activity” if the cause of human rights is to be properly served. That cause is ill-served if politicised, or if it falls victim to empty rhetoric or double-standards. All of us have much to learn from each other. No country has an impeccable human rights record.
In the view of our Commission, the work of the High Commissioner in support of national institutions has been one of the most worthwhile activities of the United Nations in respect of human rights over the past decade. It should therefore be strengthened. We believe that the High Commissioner can find a wealth of experience within the growing number of national institutions, upon which he can draw, in order to pursue and supplement his “practical activities” around the world. This experience is rooted in the realities of working at the level where it most counts – the ground level, within each nation, where the hard work, in the final analysis, has to be done.
The National Human Rights Commission of India has, in the past year, continued to inter-act closely and beneficially with the Office of the High Commissioner and other national institutions, both at the regional and the global levels, in addition to pursuing its fundamental responsibilities within India itself.
At the regional level, it hosted and assumed the chair of the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Forum (APF), held in New Delhi between 11-13 November 2002. The Meeting admitted the national institutions of Malaysia, the Republic of Korea and Thailand as full members of the Forum, thus increasing their number to 12. The Meeting, which was also attended by observer institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations, discussed, among other things, the role of national institutions in the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons, and in the effort to develop an International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities.
The work of the Asia-Pacific Forum is greatly enhanced by the opinions it receives from its Advisory Council of Jurists, comprising some of the most eminent legal luminaries of the region. At its last meeting, the Forum had before it the views of the Advisory Council of Jurists on the issue of Trafficking. The Forum has now sought the advice of that group on the issue of the primacy of the Rule of Law in countering terrorism world-wide while protecting human rights – a matter of critical importance in this day and age. We are of the view that the jurisprudence being developed in our region both by our courts and by our national institutions can be of interest and benefit to others as well.
At the global level, our Commission has served as a member of the International Coordination Committee of national institutions from 1994 to 2002 and as its Chair for a number of those years. It believes, however, that it is a healthy principle to rotate the membership and chair of such bodies, whether at the global or regional levels, on a regular basis. It hopes that this principle will be followed at both levels since a desire to participate in the better protection of human rights is the desire of peoples in all regions and nations, and the monopoly of none.
It is our view that national institutions are both the catalysts and monitors of good governance within their respective jurisdictions and can play a unique role in the defence and furtherance of human rights if they are pro-active, if they take preventive measures to stave-off or mitigate violations, and if they are fearless in bringing to book those who have violated human rights. It is therefore a matter of some concern to us if any national institution, whether in our region or elsewhere, is subjected to extraneous political, financial or other unwarranted pressures.
In seeking to fulfil its role, our Commission has, in the past months, continued to act in defence of the range of civil and political rights, as also economic, social and cultural rights, relevant to the circumstances of our country. Our efforts are documented at some length in our Annual Reports to Parliament, the monthly Newsletters that we publish and, increasingly, on our web-site. By way of illustration:
· Despite frequent and unspeakable acts of terrorism directed against innocent civilians in the country – notably in the Akshardham Temple in the State of Gujarat and in Nadimarg village in the State of Jammu and Kashmir recently – the Commission has reiterated its stand in respect of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, indicating that it intends to fulfil its responsibility under its Statute to ensure that the Act is not implemented in a manner that is violative of human rights, the Constitution and treaty obligations of the country.
· The Commission has continued to press for the implementation of its recommendations in respect of the tragic human rights violations that occurred in Gujarat last year, starting with the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra on 27 February 2002 and continuing with the violence that ensued. The Commission has urged the authorities of the country, at the highest level, to ensure that justice is done, that civil and criminal action is taken against those guilty of acts of omission or commission, and that appropriate reparation is provided, individually and collectively, to those who have suffered.
· As regards economic and social rights, the Commission has taken the view that the Right to Food is inherent to a life with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution, which is an enforceable right, and it has made detailed recommendations in respect of allegations relating to deaths by starvation in the State of Orissa.
· Given the importance of the linkages between Population Policy, Development and Human Rights, the Commission held a colloquium on these matters where detailed discussions were held in respect of the use of ‘incentives and disincentives’ in the framing of Population Policies and emphasis was laid on the need to protect the reproductive rights of women.
· Further, in recent months, the Commission has taken a number of steps in respect of Trafficking. It has pursued its nation-wide Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children and organized a sensitization programme on the prevention of sex tourism and trafficking;
· The Commission has made detailed recommendations to the Central and State Governments in respect of issues relating to vulnerable sections of society including those with disabilities, dalits, tribals, bonded and child labour.
· Protection of the rights of minorities has been a matter of particular importance to the Commission.
These are deeply troubled times in which we live. Everywhere the pervasive threat of terrorism has cast a pall on efforts to promote and protect human rights, for terrorism is deeply hostile to human rights, including the most fundamental of all rights, the right to life itself. The Commission has always held the view that the actions which any State takes to fight and triumph over this evil must themselves fall within the parameters of the Rule of Law and conform to the high standards that we have set for ourselves – in our Constitutions, our laws, and in the great human rights treaties adopted since the founding of the United Nations.
With the sound of gun-fire and the cries of the innocent victims of violence ringing in our ears, I feel it appropriate to conclude these comments with the words of advice and caution of Mahatma Gandhi who wisely observed:
“Peace will not come out of a clash of arms, but out of justice lived and done”
That is a message we can well remember today.