INDIA: The role of a human rights commission is not to demoralise human rights defenders

On April 11, staff of the West Bengal-based human rights group Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum) went by appointment to raise their concerns over attacks on Gopen Sharma, a local human rights defender, before the West Bengal Human Rights Commission. Gopen Sharma, who was present with one of his children, is being pursued by the police for his work raising awareness on mass starvation in Jalangi, Murshidabad district, in part due to the corruption of local authorities. He was instrumental in the protest of some 500 persons outside the Unicef office and government offices in Kolkata on March 23, complaining at the neglect of their plight. His family residence has since been attacked by a heavily armed mob; the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has issued an urgent appeal on his case. His life and liberty are now at risk. 

Upon meeting with the commission’s chairperson and one of its members, the visitors were treated with rudeness and hostility. They were upbraided for presuming that they had the right to meet with the chairperson, and told that a non-governmental organisation had no role to play in bringing a complaint to the commission. Finally, the chairperson, Justice S K Sen, issued an order that the district magistrate in Murshidabad should report back to the commission on the case within four weeks, and left it at that. The group went away from the commission not with a sense of security and fellowship, but with disillusionment. 

It is reasonable that victims of human rights abuse and their supporters going to a state or national human rights institution expect that they will at least be treated with courtesy, and have their concerns properly acknowledged. Many persons travel great distances in the hope that a human rights commission may be able to do something to assist them. Many, like Gopal Sharma, are in imminent danger and come to seek desperately needed protection. Sadly, it is the experience of victims in some parts of Asia that their presence is treated by human rights institutions as if it were an inconvenience, and their concerns were trivialities. The impression they are given is that the work of the commission would go on better without them. 

Although the first state human rights institution to be established in India, the West Bengal Human Rights Commission has had little effect on the incidence of gross abuses and related systemic problems there. These include custodial death and torture, and deeply flawed policing and autopsy procedures, which the AHRC has consistently brought to its attention in recent years. It is true that the commission’s failure may be attributed in part to its shortages of resources and staff. However, the inordinate delays caused by these renders the work of the commission on individual complaints all but pointless. At present it takes four to six months just to get a complaint registered, after which it may take years to get a reply from the concerned government officials, and again weeks to months before it is considered for further action, such as sending officers to investigate. Altogether it may take at least five years to process a single complaint; and most are known to end up in the rubbish bin. 

However, while it is easy to blame a lack of people and money when things don’t work out, there are numerous other reasons for the commission’s failure. Among these is a manner of thinking that is incompatible with human rights work. There is a general unwillingness in the commission to engage seriously and consistently with local and regional human rights organisations. Groups that are keen to make the most of the commission’s presence and work with it for the protection of human rights in West Bengal are oftentimes treated with contempt, and as if obstacles rather than partners. This is to some extent a problem caused by having a former chief justice as head of the commission: a chief justice may in his mind still be a chief justice. Mentally, he may still be sitting in his cloistered court chambers, rather than in a place where he is obliged to deal day by day with ordinary people. These people may not talk or act as one is supposed to talk and act before a chief justice. These people may have more on their minds than the niceties of addressing a quasi-government official. A disgruntled former chief justice may respond by demanding that others in dire need of his help go through useless formalities, or be forced to entreaty him for assistance, rather than come to their aid without a second thought. He may pose numerous barriers to the achieving of human rights for that victim or their defenders, and do more to demoralise them than any police officer or government bureaucrat can achieve. 

The Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 empowers the national and state human rights commissions in India to inquire into violations of human rights and failures to prevent such violations, and where necessary to intervene in cases pending before the courts where approval is granted by the court. This law grants the commissions many opportunities to take a lead role. It is a wide mandate of the sort envisaged by the Paris Principles on human rights institutions. It offers ample ground to assert and stand uncompromisingly on human rights principles in all cases. It does not mandate inertia and excessive bureaucracy. It does not suggest that a human rights commission should act like a mere box into which complaints are dropped never to receive a reply or evidence of subsequent action. Unfortunately, it is the sad experience of the AHRC and its partners in West Bengal that the state human rights commission there has consistently failed to be anything other than–at best–a complaint box. The hundreds of submissions made to the commission by the AHRC and Masum appear to have gone altogether unnoticed: the needs of the victims unattended, their voices unheard. In fact, these efforts have so far been altogether devoid of benefit. 

Interestingly, the 1993 act also stipulates that commissions “encourage the efforts of non-governmental organisations and institutions working in the field of human rights”. What better way to do this than to welcome the role of such groups in bringing forward cases like that of Gopal Sharma? So how is it that the commission in West Bengal not only fails to encourage, but actively discourages the efforts of these organisations, even going so far as to suggest that they have no legal right to lodge complaints on behalf of others? There is no judicial prerogative applicable where the commission is concerned: it does not have an exclusive position of authority over victims and incidents of abuse. In fact, the commission’s survival depends upon the willingness of groups such as Masum to bring to its attention violations of human rights throughout the state, without which its already inadequate resources would be further tested. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission today calls upon the West Bengal Human Rights Commission to adopt a new and more cooperative approach to the work of human rights defenders in its state. The commission should critically review both its methods of working, and more importantly, its mentality. The time has come for it to work far more assertively, progressively, openly and accommodatingly with persons and organisations keen to act legitimately for the promotion and protection of human rights in the state. It is time to discard its outmoded and unattractive ways of thinking, its pointless and burdensome formalities, and get on with the work of addressing the killings, torture and other abuses that occur daily at the hands of authorities in West Bengal, or with their connivance. The commission will no doubt find that if it is willing to make these changes then it will have a great many more allies standing in support of its cause. The AHRC will be among them too, rather than, as at present, appalled by its shabby and unacceptable treatment of a victim of serious rights abuse and his supporters. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission makes this call only now, after considerable attempts to engage with the West Bengal Human Rights Commission. It is to be hoped that the chairperson and members of the commission will be up to the task. If not, they ought to resign their positions and let others more attuned to the work of human rights, more in touch with the needs of the victims and more sympathetic to the work of non-governmental organisations, take over. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-41-2005
Countries : India,
Issues : Human rights defenders, Victims assistance & protection,