Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs

SMALL STATES - Our series exploring how the UN and others can better serve these countries →

Rights Violations Tarnish Democracy in South Asia


Cooks at the Tharanikulam Ganesh School in Vavunya, Sri Lanka. The country has put off international requests to account for civilian deaths from its civil war, which ended three years ago. URMILA SAJITHIRAN/WFP

The mind-numbing daily reports of death and destruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan obscure a larger issue: the prevalence of political and ethnic violence across South Asia, a region dominated by India that includes Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan.

Recently, the publication of two annual global reports on human rights – from the United States State Department and Amnesty International – demonstrate how widespread rights abuses are in South Asia and how slow or impotent governments, almost all of them democracies, are to stop them. In more than a few cases, governments at state or national level create more problems than solutions.

Various offices of the United Nations as well as the Human Rights Council also monitor human rights year-round. One office, the human rights section of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, actually reported some relatively good news at the end of May. Civilian deaths in that country dropped more than 20 percent in the first four months of this year, compared with last’s year’s tragic tally. This was the first time that civilian casualties declined since the UN mission there began compiling figures five years ago.

Don't miss a  story,  Subscribe to PassBlue

Still, 579 civilians died and 1,216 were injured from Jan. 1 through April 30, the secretary-general’s special representative in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, reported, adding that “The vast majority of the deaths this year – 79 percent – were attributed to actions by anti-government elements.” Government forces and their foreign allies accounted for 9 percent of the deaths, and 12 percent of the casualties were unattributed.

Across South Asia, 2011 was not a very positive year. Sri Lanka continues to stonewall international efforts to produce an impartial and full accounting of civilian deaths in the final battles of a civil war that ended three years ago. An opposition government elected in the Maldives after more than three decades of one-party rule was thrown out in essentially a police coup. In Bangladesh, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina forced Muhammad Yunus out of the Grameen Bank, which he founded, and has hounded or threatened political opposition figures and labor activists. Nepal is in a drawn-out constitutional crisis that has stalled the formation of a new government and chilled relations with the UN.

The two nuclear-armed nations at heart of the region, Pakistan and India, both drew American and international criticism in the new human rights reports. The public record of Pakistan, a bane to US diplomats and military leaders trying to end a decade-long war in neighboring Afghanistan, has attracted considerable media attention and scrutiny. But on some human rights issues, India’s record is no better than Pakistan’s.

PassBlue Related Articles
You might be interested in these posts.
[display-posts taxonomy="category" tax_term="current" orderby="date" posts_per_page="3" wrapper="ul" content_class="pb-inpost-list" wrapper_class="pb-inpost-layout" exclude_current="true"]

When India’s rights record came up for a universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council in May, the Indian government’s rosy accounting of its performance and institutional guarantees was challenged by a number of countries. Britain asked for more coverage of attacks on religious minorities; Canada raised the issue of the impunity of security forces not subject to prosecution for rights violations; Brazil was critical of the status of women; and Germany wanted more attention paid to caste discrimination.

The US “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” released by the State Department in May, contained extensive information on abuses in India, which matter given the country’s economic and military dominance of South Asia and its claim to being the world’s most populous democracy.

“The most significant human rights problems were police and security force abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape; widespread corruption at all levels of government; and separatist, insurgent, and societal violence,” the State Department report, gathered from embassy surveys and a range of other sources, said. “Other human rights problems included disappearances, poor prison conditions that were frequently life threatening, arbitrary arrest and detention, and lengthy pretrial detention.”

The report added: “Rape, domestic violence, dowry-related deaths, honor killings, sexual harassment, and discrimination against women remained serious problems. Child abuse, child marriage, and child prostitution were problems. Trafficking in persons and caste-based discrimination and violence continued, as did discrimination against indigenous persons. Discrimination against persons with HIV and discrimination and violence based on gender identity continued. Forced labor and bonded labor were widespread. Child labor, including forced and bonded child labor, also was a serious problem.”

sri lanka
A fruit seller in Sri Lanka. RANGA DASSANAYAKE/WFP

Amnesty International and the State Department drew attention to the discovery in 2011 of mass unmarked graves in Kashmir, where a separatist movement, alive for decades, has been met by an Indian occupation by hundreds of thousands of troops free to use extreme military and paramilitary force. The Jammu and Kashmir region has been in dispute between Pakistan and India since its independence from Britain in 1947, and is not recognized internationally as territory of either country. A small UN monitoring mission has been deployed there for more than six decades.

“On July 2, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission submitted an interim report, ‘The Enquiry Report of Unmarked Graves in North Kashmir,’ to the state government,” the State Department said. “This report was leaked to the press in August but was not made public. According to the media, the report documented 2,156 bodies in unmarked graves at 38 different sites in districts that had been at the heart of the insurgency in the 1990s.”

Amnesty’s report said that “In September, the state human rights commission identified over 2,700 unmarked graves in north Kashmir [where Muslims are in the majority]. Despite the local police claims that these contained the bodies of ‘unidentified militants,’ the commission identified 574 bodies as those of disappeared locals, and asked the state authorities to use DNA profiling and other forensic techniques to identify the remaining bodies. The authorities had yet to act on this recommendation.”

Also largely unresolved are the deaths of up to 1,000 Muslims (many accounts put the figure around 2,000) in a pogrom in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. The state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, has been denied a US visa.

Indian Sikhs, and their American supporters in a US-based rights group, Ensaaf, are still awaiting justice for the deaths and disappearances in north India of thousands of Sikhs in the 1980s and 1990s.

Christians in eastern India have additionally been subject to violence and discrimination, a Calcutta-born anthropologist, Angana Chatterji, told a hearing on religious minorities in the US Congress in March. The most recent Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom” from the State Department in late 2010, mentions abuses of Christians in various Indian states, usually by Hindu militants.

Chatterji, the author of “Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present; Narratives From Orissa,”  has elicited harsh criticism from Indian-American organizations for her accusations that some of them are raising money in the US and elsewhere for Hindu nationalists and that they “seek to influence public discourse and policy in the United States in relation to India.”  It is a lobby whose activities go mostly unreported.

Additional resources

A Long, Long Way to Walk in Myanmar

Native Americans Still Suffer “Profound Hurt,” the UN Says

A Story From Nagaland

Tibetan Buddhists Mistreated by Chinese, Rights Experts Say

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

Rights Violations Tarnish Democracy in South Asia
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Related Posts
Seton Hall University: Take your career further with a graduate degree in International Affairs


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world

Subscribe to PassBlue


Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously