Rotary Award on Human Rights presented to Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah

Mr. Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India and former Chairperson of the Commission received the prestigious Rotary Award on Human Rights on 23 June 2000. It was presented by the Prime Minster of India, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at a function held in New Delhi and attended by Judges, Parliamentarians, diplomats and human rights activists.

Justice Venkatachaliah was given this award for his contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and the building of a culture in which such rights can take root and flourish. The award carries a cash prize of two lakh rupees and a citation.

Presiding over the function, Chairperson Justice J.S. Verma highlighted the contribution of Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah in enhancing the stature of this Commission and helping it gain recognition as being among the foremost amongst the national institutions of the world. He recalled the observation of Mrs. Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the NHRC of India is an example of what such a body can achieve even without express powers, if it is properly constituted. To help the Commission realise its true potential, however, Justice Verma stated that "first requirement" is amendment in the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993. He specified two areas which required particular mention. The first concerned to the relationship of the NHRC with the State Human Rights Commission and other Commissions functioning in the field of human rights. The second concerned the jurisdiction of the Commission over the armed forces. He was of the view that there is an express need to provide in the statute that the role of NHRC is of the umbrella covering the entire field of human rights with the other Commissions including the State Commissions working in tandem with it. In other words, the role of the NHRC in the field of Human Rights is akin to that of the Supreme Court in Judiciary. This was necessary to avoid possible conflicts as well as to prevent duplication and to ensure consistency of human rights jurisprudence. Regarding jurisdiction over the armed forces and the special procedure provided under Section 19 of the Act, the Chairperson said that increasing complaints of violations by the armed forces, including para-military forces, require enquiry of those complaints by the Commission for retaining credibility in governance. He also called upon the Government of India to ratify the UN Convention against Torture, which India had signed on 14 October 1997, at an early date. He said that the obligation created under the Convention already exists in our country under the existing laws and the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Thus there did not appear to be any reason for hesitation in ratifying the Convention. He also drew the Prime Minister’s attention to the need to provide separate premises for the Commission, as "Manav Adhikar Bhavan". He observed that such premises were required to promote the perception of its autonomy.

Addressing the gathering, Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee said that the ideal of human rights in India is as universal as it is ancient. Emphasising the importance of India’s cultural and spiritual traditions, he said that laws and regulations alone could not ensure all the right things in society. "Law cannot teach a person to be compassionate, caring and sensitive to other peoples’ sorrows and joys. And human rights cannot be secure in a society where these qualities are weak. Social maladies called for social remedies", he observed.

The Prime Minister called upon States which have not set up State Human Rights Commissions, to do so urgently. He emphasised the particular need for SHRC’s in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which accounted for 65 per cent of the nearly 50,000 complaints that were received annually by the NHRC. He gave an assurance that the Government would examine the suggestions for amendments to the Protection of Human Rights Act and take early steps to enact the necessary amendments to further strengthen the legal framework for the protection of human rights.

Accepting the Award, Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah said that human rights are inherent to every man by virtue alone of his birth into the human family and depend on no barter or conditions. Every civilised society should respect them unconditionally as a civilisational value.

Speaking about the human rights discourse in India, he said that it transcends the ugly manifestations of abuse of authority by those in power. It relates to far deeper issues, of which abuse of power is a mere symptom. At the heart of the matter is the question of human dignity of which our Constitution speaks, including equality between people and genders; freedom of religion, conscience, association and expression; presumption of innocence under the penal system; right to education and public information; right to privacy; freedom from exploitation and remedies against administrative excesses.

Speaking about good governance, Justice Venkatachaliah said that this term meant that public power and public money be directed only towards public good; there should be respect for the rule of law and governance should be sensitive towards the constitutional and legal rights of the citizenry and their legitimate civic aspirations. He stressed that the Government must transform itself into an agency of society, and address itself to the grave societal issues of infant mortality, maternal mortality, maternal anaemia, child labour, child abuse and malnutrition. It should call for immediate and firm remedial actions. Infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV etc. are in epidemic proportions. The rate of infant mortality in some districts of India like Ganjam and Tikamgarh is worse than in he worst of Sub Saharan Africa. Adult literacy of men and women in Kishanganj district is more unfavourable than in Burkina-Faso. He thus called for a strong and close re-examination of social inequality, as unequal societies live under a constant threat of impending disaster.