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  • Ritwik Srivastava

The Role of the UNHRC and India's historical association with the Council

This post has been authored by Ritwik Srivastava, a second year student of NLIU Bhopal.

On 12th October 2018, the 193-member UN General Assembly held elections for 18 new members to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The election of countries was via absolute majority with countries needing at least 97 votes. The elections pit India against Bahrain, Bangladesh, Fiji and Philippines for a spot in the Asia-Pacific category and India’s claim to the seat was all but certain. India won the voting with highest nominations, with 188 out of 193 members voting for the nation. Fiji with 187 votes, Bangladesh with 178, and Bahrain and Philippines with 165 each followed India.

Over the years, India has had its share of run-ins with the organ of United Nations in concern and herein we attempt to sketch a brief overview of the same.

UN General Assembly established UNHRC’s headquarter in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 15, 2006. The UNHRC’s primary objective is to “promote and protect human rights around the world.”[1] It presently concluded its 38th session, and has 47 members in the council elected on three-year terms on a regional group basis. It is currently presided by a Slovanian, Mr. Vojislav Suc. The Council investigates and addresses thematic human rights violation issues like LGBTQ rights, racial and ethnic minorities’ rights, rights of refugees, amongst others. It was actively involved most famously in the Israeli-Palestine conflict,[2] 2006 Lebanon Conflict, hosting of Hamas members controversy, and the Eritrea report.[3]

India was a part of the first cadre of 47 nations elected to the UNHRC in 2006.[4] India received an initial one-year term to facilitate a rotating roster of vacancies every year. It has been a three-year member of the Council three times in the past, winning elections in 2007, 2011 and 2014. This nomination comes after a year’s break from 2017 since membership for more than two times in a row is not allowed.

The UNHRC got involved with the Government of India with a specific objective of securing rights of refugees and asylum seekers. The country still sees refugees, economic migrants and others seeking to cross the borders of India in thousands, every day.[5] UNHRC works out of its headquarters in Delhi and a field office in Chennai.

Even though India has yet to become a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Refugee Protocol, and further does not have a standing national refugee protection framework, it continues to grant asylums to a large number of refugees, mainly from neighbouring States. It, however, has accepted and respected the principle of non-refoulement for the people holding UNHRC papers.

In 1971, India was the ground for the single largest influx of refugees and migrants since the World War II.[6] Approximately 10 million migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees crossed over from East Pakistan to India, into West Bengal, Tripura, Maharashtra and Assam. The sheer number of humanity involved in this entire operation was of such magnitude that it led Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times, describe the situation in Barasat, one of the cities in Kolkata (then Calcutta), which welcomed the refugees, as “swarming with refugees, so thick in the streets that cars can only inch through.[7] India got involved with UNHRC in 1981 against the backdrop of this demographic-changing event. There, therefore, exists a paradoxical situation in India wherein the government has refused to accept any direct international mandates by not signing the 1951 Convention, however does provide limited ground-access to the UNHRC, upholding its obligations.

In June, the UN published its first-ever report on Kashmir,[8] under the presidency of Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. India publicly rejected the document by the OHCHR deeming it to be “not fit for consideration by the Human Rights Council members.”[9] Pakistan, in its press-releases, accused India of not complimenting its actions with its words. India objected to the misleading descriptions of the Indian Territory in the report which mentioned entities like “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” and “Gilgit-Baltistan”, deeming the report to be fallacious and politically motivated.

The previous major stint that India had with the UNHRC came in September 2018 for the report on human rights published by the Council under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). UPR is a process that UNHRC undertakes every four to five years peer-reviewing human rights records of each of 193 members of the UN. The world community made some 250 recommendations to India to improve its HR record. India accepted 152 of the 250 recommendations while noted the rest. The recommendations are not binding and most pertain towards developmental goals of eliminating poverty, access to civil amenities like potable water, sanitation and abolition of AFSPA. The countries as per procedure cannot reject recommendations. In the same meeting, one key confirmation given by the Indian delegation, was that of finally ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture.

Presently, with Yasuko Shimizu as the chief of mission, UNHRC is heavily involved with the Government of India and various civil societies in India working to betterment of refugees and asylum-seekers. India provides direct assistance to some 200,000 refugees every day. India, with UNHCR’s assistance repatriated over 12,000 Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees between 2002 and 2013.[10] It has partnered with the neighbor State of Afghanistan to run the ‘Ilham’ project which seeks to rehabilitate Afghan refugee women by involving them in catering services.

Apart from conducting extensive Refugee Status Determination(RSD) procedures, UNHRC aims towards sensitization of the Indian legal community towards refugee law promoting academic research by partnering with the Indian Society of International Law (ISIL) in India. It also has a Chair on Refugee Law at the NLSIU Bangalore.

[1]"; About the Human Rights Council". Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[2], U.N.: Mixed Start for New Human Rights Council Human Rights Watch, 30 6 2006

[3] Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea -­ A/HRC/29/CRP.1.



[6] UNHCR. “The State of The World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action.” Geneva, 2000.

[7] The Statesman. “214,000 Refugees Have Come to W. Bengal So Far.” The Statesman, 21 April 1971.


[9] The Press Trust of India, “UN Report fallacious and not fit for consideration”, July 10, 2018.


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