The request by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former President of Chile and erstwhile Head of UN-Women — Michelle Bachelet — to be impleaded in the matter before the Supreme Court challenging the CAA has, understandably, caused much consternation in India.
Though the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has a history of such interventions with previous instances of legal petitions to the US and Brazilian Supreme Courts and the European Court of Justice, there is a feeling among many in India that the High Commissioner has impinged upon our sovereignty, reflected partiality in thought and sought to undermine our democracy of which we are justifiably very proud. With international law not taking precedence in India over domestic enactments, the Supreme Court is unlikely to entertain the High Commissioner's locus standi. It is, however, important to try and understand the why and how of the OHCHR action and possible ways of prevention rather than simply express anger, indignation and exclaim how dare? It is also instructive to remember that our past experiences with the human rights set-up at the UN have had several unpleasant moments.
In 1994, Pakistan brought forth a resolution at the Commission for Human Rights (CHR, which has since been replaced by the Human Rights Council) seeking to censure India on Kashmir. A national effort was mounted against this. The delegation for the CHR session was led by Leader of the Opposition Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and included Farooq Abdullah and Salman Khurshid, then Minister of State for External Affairs and succeeded in stemming Pakistan. In his inimitable style, Vajpayee often mentioned thereafter that the request from Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to lead the delegation left him with no choice other an accept even though he recognised that failure would mean opprobrium for him while the bouquets of success would go to the PM! He also noted that we had to learn lessons from this episode. The energising of the then recently established National Human Rights Commission followed thereafter along with our even giving the International Committee of the Red Cross access to detainees in Kashmir.
More recently, in 2018, the OHCHR issued a report on Kashmir which was clearly one-sided and needed to be rejected by us. The focus of our ire at that time was the then High Commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussien from Jordan.
Time to act
The creation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1994 followed the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. Though an Under-Secretary-General level position, the high-sounding title was designed to give the incumbent personally and human rights, in general, a high international profile. The High Commissioner, though technically elected by the UN General Assembly, is a nominee of the UN Secretary-General with only one name forwarded for endorsement. Without doubt, as for almost all senior UN positions, the views of the P-5 weigh on the Secretary-General in making the choice and cannot be excluded from influencing the thinking of a High Commissioner.
Multilateralism and the UN are participatory but only seemingly "fair" with global power play abilities significant in the way decisions are taken. Given that "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" is our guiding philosophy, we cannot be thick-skinned about the UN and pronouncements of its instruments.
It is, therefore, imperative that, even while we grow our weight and work for our place on the global high table, we use the instrumentalities available to us for the present and try and influence things in our direction.
Colour of money
A key influencer in this regard is money. In so far as the OHCHR is concerned, the "assessed contributions" of the regular UN budget only cover around 40 per cent of its budget. This makes "voluntary contributions" truly significant. In 2019, these totalled around a huge USD 177 million received from UN Member states, international bodies, INGOs and even corporates! The European Commission is the largest voluntary donor. In 2019, it provided more than USD 20 million while the US voluntarily contributed USD 18 million. Norway and Sweden also provided similar amounts as the US with several other European countries pitching significantly in. China voluntarily contributed USD 800,000 in 2019. For years, India had pegged its voluntary contribution to OHCHR at USD 50,000 per annum. This figure has increased in the past few years and this year we have contributed USD 400,000. This is a welcome development and we should be willing to seriously increase our pay-in.
Co-terminus with financing is the importance of having your people in the set-up, especially in higher policy-making positions. To the best of this writer's knowledge, an Indian diplomat has served on secondment in the UN's human rights setup only once years back and that too at an operational level. We should endeavour to change this. For this, young diplomats need to be groomed for UN assignments and proactive efforts made for induction of our senior and qualified people for policy level placements in the UN's human rights establishment and other areas.