In the realm of international relations and politics among nations, there is always the easy temptation to deliberately forget history and indulge in comments that end up being detrimental to one or the other parties. In the category of shooting oneself in the foot, many nations would be in the race for the top spot and the United States is one of them. It is not as if top bureaucrats in different agencies are oblivious to realities, but in several instances they are compelled by the party in power to carry their ideological baggage.
How else to account for the Biden administration and the Democrats’ penchant for lecturing and hectoring other countries on something called human rights when the United States’ own track record is scandalous or far less than perfect either domestically or in its dealings with the rest of the world? In what was seen as a rare and recent rebuke of India, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington was looking at “human rights abuses” in India by some officials. “… we are monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials,” he said.
With a lot of pompous fanfare, the US State Department every year rolls out its Human Rights Report that talks about every other country in the world, an assessment that is scorned in many parts of the world. Responding to Blinken’s comment, India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar said “… people are entitled to have views about us. But we are also equally entitled to have views about their views and about the interests, and the lobbies and the vote banks which drive that. So, whenever there is a discussion, I can tell you that we will not be reticent about speaking out.”
The top Indian official and the Government of India also know that Foggy Bottom is not the only one in this business. In close competition for top “honors” will be the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which also has its annual show castigating countries for religious persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. And the pressure has been on administrations to place India long with Russia, Syria and Vietnam in the category of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’, a move that could entail sanctions. “Religious freedom conditions in India are taking a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities,” the Commission has said in one of its latest reports.
This is not the first time that New Delhi is being lectured on human rights by an administration; in fact in the 1990s India faced the onslaught from the United States House of Representatives by way of the Burton Amendment that threatened to withhold some 30% in development assistance. This annual “circus” from the Republican lawmaker from Indiana, Dan Burton, castigated India on human rights violations in Kashmir, Punjab and just about anywhere interested lobbies could place their fingers on. The Burton amendment was on such a high pitch on Capitol Hill that it seemed the efficiency of the Indian Embassy in Washington depended on the margin of defeat of the Amendment!! Finally Congressman Burton was forced to drop his initiative in 1999 when he found that only two of his colleagues would speak up. In fact, one perception doing the rounds at the time was that India had passed the word around to Burton and the State Department that New Delhi was not interested in this aid money!
But what is queering the pitch in 2022 is undoubtedly Washington’s private disdain at the stance of India on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the frustration that New Delhi has chosen to abstain in about 10 votes at the United Nations and its functional agencies instead of pointedly taking an anti-Russian posture. For the record, both the White House and the State Department “understand” where India is coming from, but the private nudge is always there, both official and from those close to the Biden administration. And the enticement has always been on two fronts: American weapons and the threat from China. India, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has argued, would want the world to be outraged and be with it if China were to send “one of its huge armies to India”; and the weapons spin being that since Russia is under massive sanctions, including on the technology front, New Delhi would invariably have to look elsewhere.
The problem for the United States that its administrations would have to privately admit is that there has been no consistency whatsoever with allies—including the so-called amongst them—given a free pass. Adversaries including tin pot dictatorships not aligned with Washington given the sanctions treatment and uncomfortable democracies given the sartorial and professorial lectures. For the United States to talk about human rights, it needs only to look back at its infamous allies like the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines; torture, waterboarding and treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, black sites in some European countries, and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Of course, all these in the name of ‘war on terror’.
Even as far as the Ukraine is concerned, the double standards are for all to see — Washington wants the whole world to stop buying Russian oil and gas, except of course European and American customers; the “red dot” discounted sale of Russian oil is on and all can buy, except of course the Indians. The United States is fixated on the import of some 0.2 per cent of the total oil that India imports from Russia, laughable indeed. And in all the excited talk about being ready to supply American weapons, few defence spinners are willing to talk about the length of time it takes for operationalisation and integration of the weaponry; and the vagaries of a system where law makers can hold things up. What happens then when the Chinese are invading India and a request for spares gets held up in the corridors of power?
For years, after the terror attacks of 9/11, media persons in the United States used to irritate and taunt President George Bush about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden — why is it taking so long… is he alive or dead? Bush had a standard answer: “If he is alive, we’ll get him; if he’s dead, we got him”. Likewise when questioned on the credentials of India as a democracy, Indian officials should neither be flustered nor compelled to be defensive but to merely say—ask Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “I don’t think it is the job of one country to preach to another… Nobody can say India is not a democracy. It’s an extraordinary place,” said the British leader during his recent visit to the country.
(The writer is a former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations)