Updated: Jul 29, 2019
More than 60 lakh Jews were murdered, asphyxiated in poisonous gases & experimented upon in the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War (1939-45). Millions were rooted out from their homes, died while many were starved, robbed & raped. All this to win a war which was lost right when it began. When a war is declared, it is also a declaration of an impending magnanimous destruction of human lives, livestock, property, environment & an immense amount of pain and mental issues to endure for the survivors henceforth. They say that World War II is the biggest war in human history in every comparison.
Coming out of this large scale destruction was going to be a humongous task but to prevent another such war from happening was an even bigger one, especially with the sight that the next war would be far more disastrous given the use of atomic bomb by the USA for the first first time ever in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War. The United Nations Organization, formed on 24th of October, 1945, couldn't afford to fail like the League of Nations did after the first World War. And thus, United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was signed by 48 countries on 10th of December, 1948 (drafting Committee was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt). This Declaration is also the foundation of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights & International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
From here on began many human rights movements in various nations, including in India where it began after the 1975-77 Emergency period. It gained momentum from peasant struggles, the Dalit movement, women's movement, child rights movement, tribal movement, environmental movement and culminated into the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 which was amended in 2006. This movement in India was long drawn, before and during which several cases of civil rights vs. the State were fought in courts. The 1993 Act created National and State Human Rights Commissions. Another Amendment Bill has been passed by both the Houses of Parliament and awaits Presidential assent in its process to become an Act.
This article will critically analyze the major changes brought in by the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill 2019.
Various States raised concerns about eligibility criteria for the Chairman of SHRC (a retired Chief Justice of HC) due to which posts remained vacant for months leading to gross incompetence and non-functioning of the State Commissions. Keeping this in mind the government has relaxed the criteria. So far only retired CJI could hold NHRC Chairmanship and Chief Justices of High Courts the Chairmanship of SHRCs. The amendment now allows retired judges of the Supreme Court & High Courts to also be eligible for the Chairmanship of NHRC & SHRCs respectively. This should speed up the appointment process.
The 2019 Amendment also increases the number of expert members in the Commission from two to three, of which one will be a woman. The Commission now will also include Chairpersons of National Commission for Backward Classes, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights & Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities. This is a welcome move as it diversifies the representation from various minority communities. However, the Bill lacks a representative from the LGBTQ community. This could have been a transformative step, especially after the Supreme Court decriminalized Section 377 of IPC in 2018.
The Paris Principles, as adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993 require the human rights body to be completely independent (guaranteed by a statute or Constitution), autonomous from government, competent, pluralistic with adequate powers of investigation and sufficient resources. For this reason the original Act did not permit reappointment of officials to the Human Rights Commissions at the national and state level both. And fulfillment of these criteria by NHRC has fetched it "A status" from GANHRI repeatedly for the fourth time for a period of five years (till 2023).
Despite this exemplary performance, the NHRC has been called 'a toothless tiger' by the Supreme Court while hearing the case of extra-judicial killings of 1,528 people in Manipur in 2017. This is because the NHRC & SHRCs lack powers to punish, penalise and direct perpetrators to compensate for the losses incurred by victims. It is merely a recommendatory body whose annual reports have been partially heard or completely ignored by successive governments. Globally, the Human Rights bodies have not permitted reappointment as it leaves a loophole for external influence. This Bill has reduced the term of Chairperson & members of the national and state level commissions to three years from five years and makes them eligible for reappointment. This is the most disturbing aspect of this Bill as it creates possibility of pliability. Amidst reports from Assam of human rights violations in detention centres where people who have been excluded from NRC have been kept, this Bill doesn't come as a ray of hope.
A few issues were raised by Dr. Shashi Throor while debating on the Bill in the House. One is the recommendation by NHRC to amend Section 36 (2) of the Human Rights Act to give it power to take cognizance of cases beyond a year of occurrence. This hasn't been heard by the government. Second, the original Act entails setting up of Human Rights courts in each district. However, the jurisdiction is not clearly specified which has only led to increased complaints. NHRC had asked the government to revisit Section 30 of the original Act and address this issue which this Bill fails to do.
There is no denying the capability of our Human Rights Commissions, given the strong Statute that created them. But we as a nation must consistently strive to make these bodies better, stronger and hawkish from whose clutches none of the human rights violations go unnoticed or worse, ignored. In the spirit of such endeavor, the present government's step to amend the Bill is welcome as it diversifies representation in the Commission but the aforementioned amendment fails to address the elephant in the room and in fact is a step which may take away the "A status" so proudly adorned by the NHRC for the past 20 years straight.
- Akshay Pathak
@Akshay_Pathak5 on Twitter
All opinions expressed by the author are done so in an individual capacity and are strictly personal. The Relevant Indian does not take any responsibility for the opinions expressed by the Author.
You can now watch Dr. Shashi Tharoor's remarks on the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, here: