1. Russia suspended from rights council
India abstains from vote at UNGA
Russia’s membership to the Human Rights Council (HRC), to which it was elected in 2020, was suspended on Thursday after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted, 93 to 24, with 58 abstentions, including India, to adopt a resolution suspending Moscow from the UN body.
The resolution, ‘Suspension of the rights of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council’, was proposed by a group of countries that included Ukraine, the U.S., the EU, several Latin American countries and required a two-thirds majority of those present and voting for adoption. Abstentions do not count in the tally of those ‘present and voting’. India abstained for reasons of “substance and process”, its Permanent Representative to the UN (UNPR), T.S. Tirumurti, said.
“We firmly believe that all decisions should be taken fully respecting due process as all our democratic polity and structures enjoin us to do so. This applies to international organisations as well, particularly the United Nations,” Mr. Tirumurti said during his ‘Explanation of Vote’ speech at the UNGA.
The U.S., which has had an uneven relationship with the HRC itself (having quit it under the Trump administration only to rejoin it last year) had been a driving force behind the resolution.
“If India has chosen any side, it is the side of peace. And it is for an immediate end to violence,” Mr. Tirumurti said, calling for diplomacy.
UN Human Rights Council
- It is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them.
- It replaced the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
- It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year.
- It was created by the United Nations General Assembly in 2006.
- It meets at the UN Office in Geneva.
- The Council is made up of 47 United Nations Member States which are elected by the UN General Assembly.
- The Council’s Membership is based on equitable geographical distribution. Seats are distributed as follows:
- African States: 13 seats
- Asia-Pacific States: 13 seats
- Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats
- Western European and other States: 7 seats
- Eastern European States: 6 seats
- Terms : Members of the Council serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms.
- Almost two-thirds of UN Human Rights income comes from voluntary contributions from the Member States and other donors.
- The remainder is covered by the UN regular budget.
- The UN regular budget, approved by the General Assembly, is funded by “assessed contributions” from each Member State.
- These are determined according to a formula that takes into account the size and strength of their respective national economies.
- Almost two-thirds of UN Human Rights income comes from voluntary contributions from the Member States and other donors.
2. Ukraine and the anatomy of India’s neutrality
Nehru’s axiom continues to guide New Delhi’s approach to conflicts, especially those involving its partners
In 1957, a year after the Soviet intervention in Hungary, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru explained in Parliament why India took a non-condemnatory approach. “There are many things happening in the world from year to year and day to day, which we have disliked intensely. We have not condemned them… because when one is trying to solve a problem, it doesn’t help calling names and condemning.” Nehru’s axiom has continued to guide India’s approach to conflicts, especially those involving its partners. Be it the Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) or Afghanistan (1979), or the American invasion of Iraq (2003), India has more or less followed this line. Its response to Russia’s invasion on Ukraine — condemnation of the civilian killings without any name calling, and abstention from UN votes — is not fundamentally different from this historically cautious neutrality.
Nor is India’s position isolated. South Africa, another major democracy, abstained from the UN votes that sought to condemn Russia. The United Arab Emirates, a close American ally in the Gulf that hosts thousands of U.S. troops, abstained from a vote in the UN Security Council. Israel, the U.S.’s closest ally in West Asia, condemned the Russian attack but refused to join the sanctions regime and said no to sending its defence systems to Ukraine. Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, did the same and is mediating between Ukraine and Russia. But none of these countries has come under the kind of pressure and public criticism from the West that India has. U.S. President Joe Biden said India’s position was “somewhat shaky”. His Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics, Daleep Singh, who was in New Delhi on a visit recently, warned India of “consequences” if it conducts trade with Russia circumventing American sanctions. Why this selective targeting?
Analysing the reasons
There could be three broad reasons — political, economic and strategic. From a political point of view, the West has carefully tried to construct a narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an assault on what U.S. President Joe Biden calls “the free world”. This narrative would look weak if the world’s largest democracy (India) sits out of the West-led bid to punish the Russians. From an economic point of view, sanctions on Russia were imposed largely by western countries. Only three Asian nations have backed the sanctions — Japan, South Korea and Singapore. China, the world’s second largest economy, would not abide by the American sanctions. If India also continues to trade with Russia, working around the payment curbs, that would invariably blunt the effect of the sanctions on the Russian economy.
Strategically, this is the most important global crisis since the end of the Cold War. India has improved its strategic partnership with the U.S., and the West in general, over the last 30 years, while at the same time retaining warm ties with Russia. This balancing was not tested in the recent past. But with the Russian attack on Ukraine and the near-total breakdown in ties between Russia and the West, countries such as India are now faced with a difficult choice of picking a side. Given the transformation of India’s partnership with the U.S., which also sees New Delhi as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region, many expected India to give up its strategic autonomy and take a stand that aligns with that of the West. It did not happen.
How India sees the war
These arguments are valid from a western point of view, but they also overlook India’s position on this conflict. There are serious points of difference. The global order is witnessing rapid changes. If the Georgia war in 2008 and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 were early signs of this shift, then the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the country to the mercy of the Taliban after fighting the Islamists for 20 years, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine mark the sharpest manifestations of the new global disorder. When India looks at the world, it sees three great powers and several middle powers. The U.S. remains the world’s pre-eminent power but with its ability to shape global geopolitical outcomes substantially diminished. China is rising fast and is seeking to, as Rush Doshi argues in The Long Game, blunt America’s existing power and displace the American order at the global level. Russia is a wounded bear with an imperial nostalgia. It is economically weak but in terms of land mass and military might, it remains a superpower. Of these three, sans any moral judgments, two are India’s partners and one is a competitor. The question India (itself a middle power) faces is why it should take a side in a confrontation that is unfolding in Europe between two of its partners, which could eventually leave its competitor stronger. Here, neutrality is the best among the bad options.
Moreover, every country formulates its foreign policy based on its national interests, not merely on moral commitments. The U.S.-led NATO bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days in 1999 when it thought the campaign would serve the interests of American leadership in the post-Cold War world. It invaded Iraq in 2003 because it wanted to reshape West Asia. It destroyed the state of Libya when it decided to do so. The U.S. is now seeking to punish Russia not primarily out of its moral commitments (which at best is selective) but because the crisis in Ukraine has opened opportunities for the U.S. to weaken Russia, its biggest rival in Europe. But India’s national interests are not aligned with this line. Indian interests are not served with a weakened, isolated Russia. On the contrary, India needs Russia not only for defence and energy purchases but also for geopolitical reasons. India is as much a continental power as it is a maritime power. While close ties with the U.S., Japan and Australia are important for India’s maritime security and interests, ties with Russia, Iran and the Central Asian countries are important for its continental security and interests, especially after the U.S.’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The tragedy of Ukraine
Lastly, the West is not an innocent bystander in the whole Ukraine crisis. Ukraine was promised NATO membership in 2008 which it never got. The promise itself was enough to shake up Russia’s security calculations and Moscow moved aggressively, annexing Crimea and supporting militancy in Donbas. The U.S. continued to provide money and limited weapons to Kyiv but never took any meaningful measure to bolster Ukraine’s deterrence against Russia. If Mr. Putin’s forces went into Ukraine, it is because he thought that NATO would not be in a position to defend a country that was not a member of the alliance. While Ukrainian pushback has denied Russia its early military objectives in Ukraine, Moscow might succeed in getting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept neutrality and might also end up controlling more Ukrainian territories than it did before February 24. That is the tragedy of Ukraine. So, the West not only failed to deter Mr. Putin, but its limited responses to his war are also pushing Russia deeper into the Chinese embrace. Here, should India accelerate this embrace by toeing the anti-Russian Western line or retain its terms of engagement with Moscow which could allow Russia to diversify its Asian relations? India has opted for the second option.
India is not a client state of any great power (even client states have not joined the sanctions regime). It is not a member of any alliance system — the Quad (India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.) is not an alliance. Like any other country, India also retains the right to take policies based on pragmatic realism and its core national interests. And India thinks that a neutral position anchored in strategic autonomy which keeps channels open with both sides is what serves its interests. It does not mean that India supports the war. It has not. The U.S., India’s most important strategic partner, does not seem to appreciate these nuances. At least the public statements from Washington suggest that.
3. The manacles of caste in sanitation work
Despite laws, workers in the field in India still face stigma and are devoid of essential rights
While civil society started a movement in the 1990s to abolish dry latrines, the focus now is on manhole deaths and provision of safety equipment to sanitation workers. The movement has been demanding the abolition of the dehumanising practice of the manual removal of human excreta.
In 1993, the then government promulgated an Act, prohibiting the construction of unsanitary dry latrines and employing manual scavengers. The government’s description of dry latrine was a problem, as it defined dry latrine as “latrine other than a water-seal latrine”.
Though the construction of dry latrines has reduced, the number of deaths in manholes, sewers and septic tanks continues to remain high. The present government had plans to amend the 2013 Act to completely mechanise the cleaning of sewers.
According to the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry, a total of 971 people lost their lives while cleaning sewers or septic tanks since 1993, the year law prohibiting employment of manual scavengers was enacted. In this piece dated October 22, 2020, Raees Muhammad wrote about the problematic definitions in the law and the lack of labour safety. He argued that since sanitation work is caste-ridden, it is essential to first disassociate caste from labour.
Even in 2020, the Indian government and our civil society continue to grapple with the inhuman nature of manual scavenging. While civil society started a movement in the 1990s to abolish dry latrines, the focus now is on manhole deaths and provision of safety equipment to sanitation workers. The movement has been demanding the abolition of the dehumanising practice of the manual removal of human excreta and calls for the introduction of mechanisation for handling waste. Various State governments and the previous Central governments have responded to these civil society demands by introducing different laws to stop manual scavenging and provide incentives to build toilets.
If, on the one hand, the civil society has tended to approach this issue as a collective problem that needs to be addressed by the State, on the other, the current ruling dispensation seems to be framing the issue as a spectacle in the form of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and is addressing the problem in terms of an obstacle in the way of tourism promotion.
In 1993, the then government promulgated an Act prohibiting the construction of unsanitary dry latrines and employing manual scavengers.
The Act defined ‘manual scavenger’ as a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta. On August 18, 2010, I recorded a video of a sanitation worker entering a manhole without any safety gear, in the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, for Dalit Camera, a YouTube channel that documents the experiences of Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans and other minorities. I also approached various social movements that were campaigning against dry latrines and requested them to include this aspect of manual scavenging to their campaigns, to no avail.
The government’s description of dry latrine was a problem, as it defined dry latrine as “latrine other than a water-seal latrine”. Manual scavenging was not just a practice related to dry latrines, but also to insanitary latrines and open defecation. Until the introduction of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, State governments had a post called ‘scavengers’. A scavenger’s job was to manually remove human excreta in households and designated places. The local authorities levied scavenging tax on houses for availing this service. But after the Act was introduced, State governments themselves became agencies that would enforce prohibition of the construction or usage of dry latrines.
Ten years later, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a social movement that campaigned against manual scavenging, along with other organisations, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court. The demand was to direct State governments and Union Territories to strictly enforce the law to stop the practice of manual removal of human excreta. Mounting pressure from civil society, coupled with the intervention of the Supreme Court, forced the Central government to conduct a survey of manual scavengers in 2013. The survey found that dry latrines and manual removal of human excreta still persisted. In the same year, the government introduced the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.
Though the construction of dry latrines has drastically reduced, the number of deaths in manholes, sewers and septic tanks continues to remain high. The present government had plans to amend the 2013 Act to completely mechanise the cleaning of sewers and manholes and build new sewers. But neither the past nor the present amendment addresses the issue of labour safety. Same is the case with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which skirts the issue of labour rights and the stigma attached to sanitation. As a matter of fact, in Tamil Nadu, all political parties have trade unions for government servants, except for sanitation workers. Bodily wastes are seen as unholy elements that need to be kept away from places of living, cooking, studying, or worshipping. Not only toilets, but even cleaning work is seen as a lowly job in India. Dalit movements have been found wanting in this regard — there have hardly been any organised movements to demand permanent job status for sanitation workers. Most sanitation contracts are given to private contractors or self-help groups, and such staff hardly have ID cards, leave alone the protection of medical insurance policies.
Workforce in sanitation departments is recruited via open competition. The local administration usually approaches particular caste members during such hiring. The situation is so dire that while we find volunteers to distribute food and undertake rescue operations during natural calamities, hardly any volunteer offers to do clean-up work or dispose of dead bodies. During the last Chennai floods, sanitation workers from the Nilgiris district were made to travel in garbage trucks to Chennai. This situation has continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Tamil Nadu, sanitation workers are asked to work in newly formed COVID-19 wards. For example, the Gudalur municipality in the State issued an order to six of its staff members to work in COVID-19 wards. Similarly, in Kotagiri town panchayat, officials asked the sons of sanitation workers to work in COVID-19 wards.
Question of dignity
Unlike other labour forces, sanitation workers do not have a separate rule-book that lays down guidelines for their work timings, holidays, a proper place for roll call, removal from duty, etc. For example, in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, all the sanitation workers have to stand outside the office during the morning and afternoon roll calls. If they reach early, they are seen sitting on roadside pavements. Even though there are spaces within the office premises, the officers force them to stand outside. The officials claim that the practice is traditional and that for any change, new rules need to be formed. There are no vehicles for sanitation workers to travel to their designated workspaces, and they have to either walk for kilometres or use garbage vehicles. This is a forced choice and is connected to the dignity of a worker. To put this in contrast, no supervisor would stand and travel with the sanitation workers.
There are hardly any exclusive trade unions for sweepers, and unlike other sections in government or private workforce, their problems are voiced by only those who are not associated with sanitation work — often NGOs. This, I argue, is because in India, sanitation work is caste-ridden and hence, there is an urgent need to dissociate caste from labour.
4. India-U.S. 2+2 will discuss key issues, says MEA
Disagreement over New Delhi’s position on Russia continues
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will visit the United States for the “2+2” dialogue with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington DC on April 11, the Ministry of External Affairs announced on Thursday.
The meeting will be held days after the U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh conveyed to the Indian side that there would be “consequences” for continuing energy trade in local currency with Russia against the backdrop of Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine.
“The dialogue would enable both sides to undertake a comprehensive review of cross-cutting issues in the India-U.S. bilateral agenda related to foreign policy, defence and security with the objective of providing strategic guidance and vision for further consolidating the relationship,” the Ministry of External Affairs said. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is expected to meet members of the Biden Administration during the visit.
The announcement from the U.S. State Department emphasised the role of democratic values and expanding defence partnership between the two sides covering areas such as cybersecurity and public health. It said, “The relationship between the world’s largest democracies is built on a foundation of common values and resilient democratic institutions, and the shared Indo-Pacific interests of a rules-based international order that safeguards sovereignty and territorial integrity, upholds human rights and expands regional and global peace and prosperity.”
Mr. Austin said in a statement that the upcoming meeting would feature talks about the defence cooperation between the two sides for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”.
The upcoming meeting between the two sets of Ministers will be held against the backdrop of a series of comments from the United States about India’s continued neutrality in the face of Russian military operation against Ukraine.
Mr. Biden’s top economic adviser Brian Deese has warned of “significant and long-term consequences” if India continued to pursue the current policy of purchasing energy from Russia despite western sanctions on the latter.
During the media briefing on Thursday, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi did not comment on what sort of consequences the U.S. could discuss with Indian diplomats.
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