On 4 May 2017, Mukul Rohatgi, the attorney general of India, told the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that the ancient Sanskrit phrase, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”—the world is one family—was “reflected in the Indian tradition of openness and diversity; coexistence and cooperation.” Rohatgi was leading the Indian delegation at India’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR)—a process by which the UN takes stock of the human-rights record of its 193 member states. With broad strokes, Rohatgi painted a picture celebrating the Indian government’s ostensible commitment towards the “promotion and protection of human rights in all parts of the world.” A closer inspection of his rhetoric, however, reveals stark contradictions between the situation that Rohatgi presented, and both, the reality of the human-rights compliance in India, as well as statements that he has previously made as the highest law officer of the country.
That day, India, led by Rohatgi, presented its third UPR report before the UNHRC. The review, which the UNHRC initiated in 2008, takes place once every four years. It is conducted by the UPR Working Group, which consists of all 47 countries that comprise the UNHRC, although any UN member state can participate during the review. The review is based on a report submitted by a national government, declaring the efforts it has made to meet its human-rights obligations along with reports that are submitted by other organisations and stakeholders. These include reports by human-rights treaty bodies—which monitor the implementation of international human-rights agreements—the country’s national human-rights institution, and civil-society organisations. (Disclosure: The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, where both of us are presently working as programme officers, was a member of a civil-society coalition called the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN, which submitted a report on India’s human-rights record to the UNHRC.)
These reports and the questions raised in advance by members of the UNHRC set the stage for Rohatgi’s presentation of India’s human-rights record. He presented India’s commitment to and fulfilment of its human-rights obligations on a plethora of issues. These included, among others, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and the repeated instances of custodial violence and sexual assault. Rohatgi’s speech was doublespeak: his claims before the UNHRC contradicted his submissions in India, and the omission of the human-rights violations in the country was conspicuous. Below is a list of five claims that Rohatgi made, and the inconsistencies or inaccuracies from which they suffer.
Free speech and civil society
Rohatgi began his submissions by attributing India’s continuing “endeavours towards observance of human rights” to, among other reasons, its “free and vibrant media” and “vocal civil society.” Yet, both national and state governments have been guilty of silencing those voices.