India has long considered itself the world’s largest democracy. It claims to have a vibrant media and independent judiciary. But a decline in its human rights record in recent years has gone under-noticed by the international community – even as observers warn that human rights abuses, civil society repression, and increasing hate speech all point to a growing risk of atrocity crimes.
It is time for the international community to take notice and respond to serious human rights abuses by sending a clear signal that these actions will be met with stark consequences. Laws already exist that allow the United States and United Kingdom to sanction officials involved in serious human rights abuses in India. Now, those governments should use that power to live up to their rhetoric on human rights.
In Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populated state, the UP police is alleged to have carried out at least 146 extra-judicial killings since Yogi Adityanath, UP’s chief minister, took power in 2017. The police have claimed self-defense, but witness testimonies, autopsy reports, and other evidence show that the victims were, in fact, executed. Similarly, following the adoption of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019, credible sources show that the UP police shot 21 protestors without any cause and physically and mentally abused numerous victims in custody. These are egregious human rights violations that have gone unpunished in India with investigations being carried out by the police officers involved in the violations themselves and inaction on part of the National Human Rights Commission. Adityanath, who has publicly encouraged extra-judicial killings by the police as a means to combat crime, was recently re-elected to a second term in office.
That’s why the Guernica 37 Centre, a not-for-profit organization of international criminal and human rights lawyers to which I serve as Chair, has made submissions to the U.S. State Department and UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, requesting that each impose targeted sanctions on Adityanath, as well as former Director General of UP Police Om Prakash Singh, who consistently denied the police’s role in the shooting of protesters, and Superintendent of Police Sanjeev Tyagi, who allegedly ordered his subordinates to use excessive force against protesters.
These sanctions submissions are made under U.S. Magnitsky Act 2012 and the UK Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, which allow for asset freezes and travel bans to be imposed on individuals and organisations around the world in response to their involvement in serious human rights abuses. These laws reflect efforts by the United Kingdom and United States to integrate the promotion of human rights and open societies into their foreign policy agendas – but to truly be champions of human rights, those countries must go beyond rhetoric and consistently apply sanctions wherever they are warranted.
Some of the noteworthy designations in recent times under these targeted sanctions include those against Chinese corporations concerning human rights abuses against Uighurs; Myanmar military officers for abuses against Rohingyas; and Saudi officials for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, members of Bangladeshi Rapid Action Battalion were sanctioned by the U.S. in 2021 for abuses of a similar nature as committed by the police in Uttar Pradesh. According to Bangladeshi activists, extrajudicial killings have stopped since punitive U.S. measures were imposed two months ago.
A failure to act against the Indian police officials and political leaders, for equally heinous abuses, would be a clear sign of double standards in application of the human rights sanctions’ regime.
It becomes particularly urgent to act on violations in India for the lack of other means available to victims to hold the perpetrators accountable. The UP authorities have so far ignored calls by victims’ families, human rights groups, domestic courts and United Nations mandate holders to investigate and prosecute these cases.
International avenues for the victims are all the more limited as India has not acceded to the individual complaint mechanism of any of the relevant U.N. treaty bodies, such as the Committee against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Similarly, India has also not accepted the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction, and a referral to the ICC would require a resolution of the U.N. Security Council, where India has been sitting as a non-permanent member for eight terms now, and Russia and China have consistently exercised veto powers over referrals.
Targeted U.S. and UK sanctions against those most responsible will be an official recognition and acknowledgement of these violations against the victims, that they have failed to receive thus far at the domestic or international levels. Other civil society groups in India and the United States have likewise noted the importance of sanctions in signaling that human rights abuses in India will not be ignored by the international community.
The human rights violations in UP documented in our sanctions submission continue unabated and are part of a troubling – and rising – pattern of repression and state-sanctioned violence in India. A clear signal that such abuses will not go unnoticed could deter their continuation. A timely action by the international community, in the form of targeted sanctions in this case, would act not only as a recognition of past violations but also as a potent tool to prevent future ones.