India urged at UN to crack down on sexual violence

Activists protest against the release of men convicted of gang-rape. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA - India was urged to take a tougher stand on sexual violence and religious discrimination, and ratify the torture convention, as countries raked over its human rights record at the United Nations on Thursday.

New Delhi insisted that it appreciated the role played by human rights defenders and said it would only impose the death penalty in the “the rarest of rare cases”, as it heard other nations’ critiques at the UN Human Rights Council.

“India condemns any form of torture and maintains an inviolable stand against arbitrary detention, torture, rape or sexual violence by anyone,” India’s Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta told the council.

New Delhi has signed the UN Convention Against Torture, but has not ratified it.

India was facing its Universal Periodic Review, which all 193 UN countries must undergo every four years.

“We recommend that India reduce the broad application of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and similar laws against human rights activists, journalists and religious minorities,” said Ms Michele Taylor, the United States ambassador to the council.

“Despite legal protections, discrimination and violence based on gender and religious affiliation persist. The application of anti-terror legislation has led to prolonged detentions of human rights defenders and activists,” she added.

Canada urged India to probe all acts of sexual violence, and protect freedom of religion by investigating religious violence, “including against Muslims”.

Nepal said New Delhi should “strengthen its efforts to combat discrimination and violence against women and girls”.

British Ambassador Simon Manley urged India “to ensure its existing laws against child labour, human trafficking and forced labour are fully implemented”.

China, likewise, said India should “take measures to fight human trafficking”, and pursue gender equality.

Bhutan said India needed to take further steps to combat sexual offences against women and children, while Germany said it “remains concerned about the rights of marginalised groups”.

Saudi Arabia urged India to reduce child and maternal mortality rates.

Australia urged India to establish a formal moratorium on the death penalty.

Switzerland said India should “ensure open access to social networks and not impose any measures that would slow down or block Internet connections”.

Free speech ‘not absolute’

Mr Mehta said the Indian constitution guarantees the right to free speech.

However, “freedom of speech and expression is not absolute in nature and is subject to reasonable restrictions” in the interests of India’s sovereignty, integrity, security, foreign relations, “public order, decency, morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”, Mr Mehta added.

“Imposing reasonable restrictions enables the state to regulate freedom of speech and expression where it amounts to hate speech,” he insisted.

In closing, Mr Sanjay Verma, Secretary at India’s Foreign Ministry, said he would take the recommendations back to New Delhi for consideration.

“The government of India’s abiding commitment is for the promotion and protection of the human rights of our people,” he said. “As the world’s largest democracy, India is committed to the highest standards of human rights.” AFP

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