HUMAN rights can mean one thing to the citizen, another to the state. And a state itself usually tweaks its ideological preferences to accord with the one who holds the reins. Then there is the ubiquitous ‘deep state’, not known to be a keen enthusiast of human rights at all. The ideal condition for the citizen is to keep the ruler away from the reach of the deep state, a tall order. Kennedy to Trump or Nehru to Modi represented an ideological somersault in the quest for rights.
President Biden has tapped two men as US ambassadors in India and Pakistan, and both have indicated that human rights would be foregrounded in bilateral ties. It is thus that Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, who has worked with Human Rights Watch in California, appeared as envoy-designate to New Delhi before the Senate’s screening committee. He would also need endorsement from a full Senate. Veteran diplomat Donald Armin Blome, with his recent engagements in volatile Tunisia and Libya, could be heading to Islamabad. Garcetti has promised to engage directly with India’s human rights activists as part of his agenda. Blome hopes Pakistan would target all stripes of terrorism equally, stressing the need to interdict chronic vigilante violence against Pakistan’s minorities.
Truthfully, for countries like the US, there is a mismatch between the practice of human rights at home and their pursuit abroad. Edward Snowden showed the world how his country violated guaranteed freedoms even at home. Julian Assange, on the other hand, furnished details of how the US trampled on human rights abroad. One whistle-blower lives in self-exile in Moscow, and the other is in prison in London, awaiting possible extradition to the US, likely to die a prisoner. What message does this send out to besieged whistle-blowers and journalists elsewhere, India and Pakistan included?
Human rights as we know them in practice are a seasonal virtue that fluctuates with the needs of the moral pulpit from where they are monitored, and administered. Strategic and business compulsions almost always spur human rights to be pursued with gusto or to be unceremoniously abandoned.
For countries like the US, there is a mismatch between the practice of human rights at home and their pursuit abroad.
From George Bush Sr, via Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, a range of expedient decisions come to mind that reveal the state’s lip service to human rights. Take the Tiananmen Square tragedy of June 1989 in Beijing. Would Bush Sr impose sanctions on China, as Americans were hoping? Well, a few short months down from Tiananmen, the US was renewing the most favoured nation status to China.
If one thought Clinton would be different, the Democrat president led China by the hand into the WTO, convinced it was the right thing for his country. Trump the self-proclaimed dealmaker struck up an adversarial agenda after failing to soften Xi Jinping at a lavish banquet. Hong Kong, Taiwan and the sea lanes resurfaced as issues. Trump also promised India submarine-hunting helicopters while visiting Delhi in the middle of the pandemic in February 2020. The deal could be a factor in the fateful Sino-Indian border skirmish on June 15.
Trump frowned on subtleties. He was plainly honest when he put economic benefit in the balance to measure a friendly ruler’s criminality in the gruesome murder of a self-exiled dissident. Trump said he would not lose a $100 billion arms contract with Saudi Arabia by annoying the ruler. There is a treasure trove of competing hypocrisies shadowing major advocates of human rights.
President Biden is said to be doing everything right with domestic priorities, be it reviving the economy or combating a mutating virus or by making earnest efforts to repair the country’s ruptured racial fabric. Yet his popularity is floundering. In the slippery situation he cannot but look over his shoulders to see the Republicans snapping at the heels in the Congressional and gubernatorial races leading up to the presidential contest in 2024.
Messrs Garcetti and Blome bring scarce hope for South Asia’s abused and assaulted human rights defenders, be they in or out of prison. Blome could consider finding time from Afghanistan and other turbulences in the region — for that is his expertise — to confront the reality that the media in Pakistan is under siege. Garcetti might quickly engage with Indian and Kashmiri human rights workers, including Amnesty International, forced to terminate operations in India following coercion by a right-wing government.
Garcetti will inevitably talk to journalists bravely standing their ground on raging issues, not least the state’s alleged spying on them with the help of Israeli spyware. He will find the minorities in distress, with Christians and Muslims facing the heat from the state and its vigilantes alike. He will find that India’s constitution, which guarantees basic rights and freedoms to citizens, is itself under assault. Terror accused and convicted killers roam free, some elected to parliament and state legislatures, while public intellectuals are awaiting trial in prison.
The trouble with harbouring excessive hope with the two diplomats though is that the process of their clearances by the Senate could stretch the arrival to September. By which time Biden would be too busy dodging Republican booby traps at home to be able to attend to well-meaning briefs from abroad.
Keeping hope also is not the same as finding a durable solution to pervasive uncertainties surrounding human rights. Prime Minister Modi was denied a US visa as chief minister under whose watch hundreds were lynched in Gujarat. But then he was accorded fellowship in the comity of nations unabashedly as a bulwark against China. And who can forget the fact that Robert Blackwill, president Bush’s envoy in New Delhi in 2002, refused to visit bloodied Gujarat because it was not politically expedient for him to do so. With this nagging fear of ‘political expediency’, one can only hope that President Biden’s ambassadors in Islamabad and New Delhi would try to be different.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2021