Mob lynching, encounter killings and threat of seditious laws with tacit support of the state have become a major threat to human rights in India. As a human rights lawyer, how do you see the Indian situation?

India has a population of 1.3 billion people, great diversity and a complex history, which means that it is difficult for the country to both identify and respond to human rights violations effectively. That being said, there are a number of human rights concerns in India that could see an improved response. Failure to adequately deal with allegations of human rights abuses is indeed a troubling situation and is arguably a violation of international human rights obligations. More general human rights challenges are also problematic. Over ten years ago I worked with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the villages of Bihar on human rights and development issues. I interviewed people who told me about their experiences relating to gender discrimination, the infringement of child rights and difficulties relating to the caste system. Over ten years later these areas continue to be concerns in India that need to be addressed.


Activists have raised concerns about the threat to the major democratic institutions, the judiciary, the press and civil rights groups. How do you see the situation in India where state becoming a torture machine against its own citizens?

Dissent is a vital part of any functioning democracy. It is essential that all voices and opinions are not only tolerated but encouraged. It is also important that the judiciary is independent, and that the press is able to conduct its work without fear of reprisal. In situations where there are human rights violations, we often see a decline in the independence of the judiciary and the press and a rise in state opposition to human rights groups which seek to ensure that the rights of citizens are protected. A lack of acceptance of different opinions has become an issue in India in recent years and it is especially worrying that human rights activists have become targets for raising legitimate concerns. All states have a responsibility towards their citizens to ensure that their human rights are upheld. This is also the case for India, which in my experience is a welcoming, culturally rich and resilient country that can overcome these challenges.


You have highlighted the need for a proper definition for terrorism. The ambiguity has led to selective application and gross misuse of international law for the benefit of powerful groups across the world. Who is preventing the efforts to have an effective definition?  

It is highly problematic that there is no universally recognised definition of terrorism. This is due to the political nature of terrorism and the fact that states are reluctant to cede their sovereignty on such a controversial issue. States do not want to leave themselves or any of their citizens open to potential action for terrorist acts, which could occur if there was a specific definition and a comprehensive international convention on terrorism. In the process of defining terrorism there have been arguments relating to the need to distinguish the rights of people who are struggling under foreign occupation and are attempting to exercise their right to self-determination from other types of terrorism. As is often said, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Despite the hesitation of many states, if there is to be an end to impunity and deterrence, the international community needs to come together to define terrorism and to hold those who commit acts of terrorism accountable.


Shannon Maree Torrens

Terrorism has no religion, it’s said. However, it’s always tagged on to Islam and Muslims. Why is the discussion centered around Muslim terror groups alone?

Recently there has been a focus on the rise of terrorist groups that claim to be associated with Islam. Indeed, the terrorist attacks with the highest number of deaths in recent years have been perpetrated by these groups, however as many Muslims have communicated, these groups are arguably not acting pursuant to a correct interpretation of Islam. The connection between these groups and Islamic faith is therefore tenuous. Furthermore, other religious groups, including Christians, Buddhists, Jewish people and Hindus also perpetrate what could be classified as terrorist acts, but yet do not receive the same degree of focus nor condemnation from the international community. For example, Hamas, the political group which governs the Gaza Strip in Palestine has been accused of being a terrorist group, but the actions of Israel in response to the Palestinians could also be classified as terrorism. 


Terrorism is commonly attributed to the atrocities committed by non-state actors. Where do you place the atrocities committed by states against minority religious and ethnic groups? 

Non-state actors are increasingly the perpetrators of terrorist activities however states are still committing and sponsoring terrorist groups and crimes. It is difficult to respond to state sponsored terrorism effectively because there is a lack of enforceable accountability when dealing with states. Atrocities committed against religious and ethnic minorities are particularly troubling because these groups usually do not have the opportunity or means to protect their own interests, often due to being disenfranchised members of society. Atrocities committed against individuals can be categorised in a variety of ways, for example as a human rights violation, as an international crime or tentatively as terrorism. Atrocities committed against minorities are typically situations of ongoing human rights violations rather than what could currently be called “terrorism”. In fact, it has been suggested that human rights violations against minorities are often a precursor to terrorism, therefore the two are interlinked.


International terrorism is a byproduct of imperialist foreign policies of the big nations, especially the US. Now they claim that terrorism is the biggest threat world facing today. What do you say about the duplicity in the ‘war on terror’?  

The causes of terrorism are complex and extend beyond one single reason or justification. There are indeed legitimate arguments that western states facilitate terrorism around the world, through funding and providing logistical support, particularly in the Middle East. Beyond this, to a large extent terrorism is said to be the result of deficiencies in human agency and development. This means that an individual, who feels as though he or she does not have any power in a society nor control over his or her own life may resort to terrorism to gain influence, pursuant to a larger political, religious or ideological movement. This often occurs in situations where there is a lack of development and education. There is indeed a discrepancy in responses to terrorism where some states identify and criticise the terrorist activities of other states, whilst perpetrating terrorist acts of their own. This is due to hypocrisy but also differences in perception about whether certain acts constitute terrorism, again necessitating a need for an international definition.


International bodies like UN, International Court of Justice etc. seems to be a colossal failure in preventing terror threats. Do you agree?

The UN faces significant challenges in responding to terrorism in an effective way because of the contentious nature of terrorism and the failure of states to agree on this issue, even with respect to something as simple as a definition or on the establishment of a comprehensive international convention on terrorism. This has not been the case with other international concerns such as genocide, refugees, human rights or climate change, all of which have definitions and associated international conventions. One major impediment to the effective response of the UN to terrorism is that when situations of terrorism are put to the UN Security Council they can be blocked by a Permanent Five member which gives those five states considerable influence. International organisations are however not solely responsible for responding to terrorist threats, it is a whole of community responsibility, which includes state governments and local communities that all need to work together on this challenge. 

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