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Racism, Colonialism and Human Rights

The issues grouped in this section are close to India’s heart. Foremost among them is the racism—
the controversy centred on South Africa’s official policy of racial discrimination. In the very first
session of the General Assembly, India took up the matter and mobilised support from the world
community to pressure South Africa to end apartheid. India worked hard to build an anti-apartheid
coalition in world politics that did not hesitate to launch actions like ban on participation in sports
events, ban on participation in international forums and ban on sale of military equipment, to
pressurise the White minority government of South Africa. In this context, it is a matter of great
satisfaction that in 1993- South Africa declared itself apartheid-free following which a freely
elected democratic government assumed power under the leadership of Nelson Mandela,
Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual heir.
India is credited for taking up liberation of subject population, i.e. the peoples under the yoke of
colonial rule in different parts of the world. Being one of the first to gain freedom after the end of
the Second World War, to continue the struggle against colonialism elsewhere is natural to India.
The cause of Indonesia for freedom from the Dutch colonialism was one of the first issues India
took up in the late 1940s. The freedom fighters in numerous parts of Asia and Africa—Indo-
China, Algeria, Angola, Namibia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Tunisia—looked to India for
diplomatic and political support and guidance. During the 1960s, India led the anti-colonial cause
by heading the UN Committee charged with speedy implementation of the Declaration on
Decolonisation. Statistics speak for themselves: There were nearly 75 crore colonised peoples

when the UN was founded and now only half a crore remain to be decolonised. Most of the
liberated territories have become members of the United Nations taking the tally from the original
figure of 51 to 191 now.
As a democratic country, India is naturally wedded to the cause of human rights like civil rights,
viz. right to life, freedom, to be free from torture or unlawful detention, etc. But India, joined by
nearly the whole of the Third World countries and also the former socialist countries felt that the
civil and political rights would have to be achieved in conjunction with, and are indeed inseparable
from, the economic, social and cultural rights. They go hand in hand, not one at the expense of
the other. Among the political rights, the right to self-determination is among the most controversial
issue. Whether the right is to be applied in the context of foreign, colonial rule in the context of
foreign, colonial occupation, or to be extended to the ethnic, cultural minorities to secede from a
country is among the most hotly debated questions. Another issue is: whether those using violence
to secede from a country could enjoy the protection of rights as freedom fighters, or are to be put
on a different plane as terrorists? Are states accountable to the world outside on account of gross
violation of human rights? Can foreign powers militarily intervene citing human rights violations?
India has taken a tougher, if not conservative, stand in favour of the unity and sovereign authority
of states.

Economic and social development is an issue at the core of human rights debate as well. Again it
is a vital concern that makes India and the United Nations partners. India’s basic position is twofold.
First, economic development is a necessary precondition for peace. World peace can be
durable only when conditions like poverty, hunger, exploitation that breed conflict are alleviated.
Secondly, the newly acquired political independence of most of the erstwhile colonial countries
would be incomplete without the economic and social development. In other words, the
development element of the world order is critical. India devoted considerable energies for the
establishment of scores of UN bodies dedicated for assisting the economically backward nations,
viz. the regional economic commissions, the UN Development Programme, and UN Conference
on Trade and Development. In the 1960s and 1970s, India was in the forefront raising demands
and grievances with regard to unstable prices of agricultural products in the Western export
markets and also the unhelpful terms of trade that worked to the benefit of the rich and industrially
advanced countries. The Third World (also known as the “Group of 77”) came to be identified
as a distinct (though diverse) entity in diplomatic conferences and negotiations. One of the dream
themes of this group that echoed in the UN forums in the 1970s was the establishment of New
International Economic Order based on the principles of democracy, equity, and justice.
Let us also note here that India and other developing countries have promoted a holistic approach
towards development. As per this approach, major problems like environment, population control,
food, human rights, and women empowerment are closely linked to development. For example,
the idea of sustainable development underlines the importance of conserving environment in a
manner that the present generation can make use of the biological resources without denying the
same privileges to the coming generations of humankind. The Earth Summit advocated this
approach; and in that Conference India proposed the setting up of the planet protection fund.
Let us not ignore the setbacks to the efforts of India and other developing countries. The anticipated
dialogue between the developed North and the developing South failed to take place. The
government to government development assistance levels had progressively declined. So was
the case with the resources made available to the development activities of the United Nations
agencies. On the other side, the sharp rise in the debt of the developing countries (standing
currently at some US$ 2,500 billion) was a source of alarm. Nearly 80 developing countries
including India had to turn to the International Monetary Fund for loans to tide over their short
term economic difficulties, but at the same time go through a back breaking regime of
You need to appreciate the fact that the development activities of the United Nations signify two
things. India has been a major beneficiary of the multilateral development assistance, some of
which have been channelled through UN agencies like the UN Development Programme. Side
by side, as one of the leading lights of the Third World countries in terms of its technical manpower,
India has often contributed in a big way through the UN wings like UNIDO, UNESCO, and
UNDP for the advancement of other developing nations.


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