South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights


Democracy in South Asia sub-region is confined to procedural, ritual and sacrament electorism. Democracies prevail but with enormous deficits, elections take place without sanctity. Democratic deficits can be classified in the form of the absence of good governance, rampant corruption, rising extremism, deeply entrenched fundamentalism and criminalization of politics.  Similarly, challenges to electoral sanctity are being demonstrated in the form of the use of money, muscle and manipulation at all stages of electioneering that contributes to curtail the very notion of universal suffrage, genuine and periodic polls. There is a clear missing link of democracy with legitimate and inclusive participation of the commoners.

The quarter of a century-old SAARC is a mixed baggage of emerging, stable, conflict-ridden, and post-conflict societies. Some of the member countries are encountering painfully protracted political transition whereas the politics of appeasement, deception and compromise are common phenomenon both at domestic, bilateral and multilateral affairs. In the recent past, some of the contemporary emerging democracies have been marred with frequent light and shadow of democracy. Some of the so-called stable democracies are confronted with the tendency of pseudo and illiberal democracy. True statesmanship is on the erosion in transitional societies where bilateral dealership has overshadowed regional leadership which has resulted in failure to maintain peoples’ minimum desire of attaining social justice. Often in the region, marginalized and minorities are the hardest-hit which has given birth to widespread incidences of cynicism, frustration, anger, revenge and violence.

Unfortunately, the existence of significant ongoing rights abuses is not acknowledged and often underplayed by the governments and also by the state media. In certain circumstances, the popular demand for democratic and fundamental rights are met with military repression and draconian laws thereby showcasing serious encroachment on rights such as the right to life, freedom from torture and bondage, etc. Serious human rights violators are often let scot-free under political patronage and enjoy the culture of silent amnesty. The SAARC member states have ratified some international human rights instruments but they score one of the lowest records on the globe in safeguarding them. Key instruments such as the Refugee Convention, Rome Statute on International Criminal Court and Migration Convention are yet to be ratified by majority of the member states. Deeply entrenched culture of impunity is hijacking the notion of the basic rule of law and extra-constitutional forces are stealing the state especially in the post-conflict societies, which are trying to recuperate after massive damage to the fabric of civil life.

On economic front, people are equally deprived of economic, social and cultural freedom.  In most of the national constitutions, absence of justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights jeopardizes the vital aspiration of people to lead a dignified life. The sub-continent has more than enough food, yet people starve to death. Indigenous efforts to relief, recuperation and reconstruction have been hijacked by the adversarial policies of the international financial institutions, transnational companies, other global corporate interests and their stringent conditionalities. Inequitable ownership and control of the means of production, capital, technology and other productive assets has resulted in massive social injustice against the economically challenged, downtrodden and indigenous people. Powerful nations in the region are indulged in accomplishing the interest of the global corporate profiteering scheme rather than advancing regional cooperation. Unsafe, irregular and inhumane migration of both muscle and brainpower has dried-up the scope for the badly needed economic progress of the least developing countries of the region. This is what is popularly known as the ‘politics of poverty’.

On the security front, prevalence of a narrow, parochial and jingoistic nationalism continues to constrain the very basic notion of security in the region. A vast amount of wealth is being spent on defense purchases at the cost of more critical developmental needs and genuine human and social security. The two nuclear states of the region pose serious and adverse consequences for the entire region. As an emerging trend, the securitization of migration is a major threat to the moving population of the region.

The SAARC is advancing bright sides too in the path of democratic development. At people-to-people level, growing common aspiration and bond of solidarity on human rights, peace and justice is forging. Nations now seem to be moving on the trail of irreversible open society process although the achievements remain far from satisfactory. Societies confronted with high intensity internal armed conflicts are in the process of tangibly transformative evolution. Inclusive approach is embraced in some societies in the arena of political empowerment through major constitutional reform.

Democratization process in the region is gradually gaining ground. The recently adopted SAARC Democracy Charter gives expression to collective commitment of the member states to promote and preserve values and ideals of democracy and democratic institutions. The Charter also reinforces the supremacy of the Member States’ respective constitutions and envisions strengthening democratic institutions by reinforcing democratic practices. Guarantee of the independence of judiciary and primacy of rule of law along with the commitment to adhere to UN Charter and other international instruments are some of the salient features of the Charter. The Charter renounces unequivocally any unconstitutional change of elected government in a member State and reinforces linkage of development and democracy, good governance, equitable and participatory processes as well as promotion of democracy at all levels.  The other key features of the Charter is to promote equality of opportunity, equality of access and equality of treatment through safeguards measures against social injustices and stratification. Nevertheless, the ground realities in most of the instances are contrary to the Charter´s scope. In spite of well-crafted doctrines, principles and pledges, the majority of the people of the region are alienated from the so-called mainstream democratic development in the absence of indivisibility and interdependence between democracy, human rights, development and just peace.

There are enormous opportunities and risks to establish such a mechanism in the region. Although SAARC has adopted some welfare-based, economic and crime preventon conventions, it is the only regional grouping on the globe without any inter-governmental body on human rights. In all aspects of regional arrangements, human rights component gets deliberately ejected. The reasons which led to the installation of the institutions of regional arrangements in other regions are equally valid for South Asia region. Human rights form part of international customary law and an inter-state concern. In the contemporary globalized world, human rights no longer constitute a matter for the exclusive determination by individual States. A regional inter-governmental human rights instrument could provide an impetus to the development of regional arrangements in other field of endeavor e.g. economic and political co-operation.

There are some associated risks too in the formation of a rights mechanism in South Asia. The presence of rigid and or human rights unfriendly regime(s) in such instrument runs the risk of being overwhelmed by their undue influence. The philosophy that the global and regional approaches to the promotion and protection of human rights need to be mutually supporting and complementary may be jeopardized with the intervention of such regimes. Thus, any attempt to promote a regional institution in isolation without accession of the major human rights treaties by all member states may lead to complete non-functioning of the long-cherished arrangements.

While setting benchmarks for a regional instrument on human rights, there must be no room for reservations in certain international human rights treaties namely, Bill of rights, Conventions relating to women, children, racial discrimination, and torture. The member states are obliged to accede major international human rights instruments prior to their membership to the arrangements. In the prospective regional instrument, the right of individual and NGOs to petition must be guaranteed and such petitions should not preclude concurrent appeals to UN mechanisms. Such arrangements should incorporate regular reporting system by states on internal human rights standards with effective civil society participation. Most importantly, such a mechanism entails a separate body such as a human rights court to adjudicate complaints with full investigative power. The future of freedom in the region does not lie in economic prosperity alone. It must be aspired in conjunction with democracy, rights and justice.

The writer is President of INHURED International