Human rights advocacy in a world of interests: why the EU fell short at India’s Raisina Dialogue

India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was recently asked how he saw the country’s role in defending free societies globally – a diplomatic way of confronting India on its failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

His answer was, if not reassuring to human rights proponents, certainly honest: “Countries evolve a combination of values, interests […] and all of us would like to find the right balance”.

This has always been the tension at the heart of foreign policy. And the European Union (EU) is no exception. Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty (which forms the constitutional basis for the bloc) reads: “In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests”.

In our interactions with the EU, human rights organisations repeatedly appeal to the Union’s stated values. Whilst, in general, the EU is a benevolent global actor on human rights, there are instances where an appeal to values alone is not sufficient to galvanise action.

Consider EU-India relations, for example. Brussels is aware of the human rights situation in India: of the ethno-religious nationalism of the BJP government, and the violence, discrimination, and impunity that that continues to yield.  The reason for the EU’s failure to speak unequivocally and publicly at the highest level has not been ignorance.

Anyone can see that India is a strategic partner. Besides the size, growth trajectory, and make-up of its economy; India is a crucial geopolitical player in an unstable and highly contested region.

We get it. Organisations like CSW understand that communicating an awareness of this – of geopolitical interests, of the trade-offs – is conducive to being listened to. It disarms advocacy targets of their ability to ignore us on grounds of “narrow sightedness” or “not seeing the bigger picture”.

But what other strategies can we, as human rights advocates, supporters, or campaigners, apply?

A clear call

In April 2022, European Commission President Urszula Von der Leyen travelled to New Delhi to participate in the Raisina Dialogue: a high-level geopolitical conference hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. CSW was amongst the few organisations involved in briefing the President’s team ahead of the trip.

Our call here was simple: for the EU to end its silence on human rights violations in India.

We made this our call for four reasons. Firstly, because contacts on the ground had explained that this would encourage local activists and minorities.

Secondly, because high-level statements can act as a “coat hanger” upon which further public diplomacy and human rights cooperation can take place – for example, it would set a stronger mandate for the EU’s in-country delegation.

Thirdly, because language like this has the power to define the values upon which deeper international relations should be built; it clarifies the boundaries of what each believes to be acceptable and can create concrete conditions for cooperation.

And fourthly because we believed it to be realistic.

While President Von der Leyen’s public statements did not, in the end, address the human rights situation in India, this does not prove our call to have been unrealistic. I believe our advocacy failed in this case not because of our approach, but because of the EU’s strategic miscalculations, and therefore lack of will. While the EU clearly felt that there was too much at stake to risk “rocking the boat”, I firmly believe that there were reasonable ways in which the EU could have raised human rights on this occasion, without rupturing relations or its interests.

Make use of leverage

It was inevitable and appropriate that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be the focus of President Von der Leyen’s message at the Raisina Dialogue. During her inaugural speech, she was direct about what was at stake, saying: “This is a defining moment […] Our response to Russia’s aggression today will decide the future of both the international system and the global economy […] Will the right of might dominate; or the rule of law?”

While President Von der Leyen was unambiguous about borders and international law in general, she neglected to define the choice in such a way that robustly included human rights. Crucially, she failed to fully make use of the leverage India had ceded, after its inexcusable and repeated abstentions on UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This was a moment when India stood on the backfoot in terms of its multilateral credentials. Instead, the EU chose to speak of “shared values”.

“Shared challenges”

While making proper use of leverage would have created a fertile context for raising EU human rights abuses without rupturing relations, a certain form of language could also have been used. By this I mean especially the avoidance – where appropriate – of didactic or superior language, by – where possible – framing certain human rights challenges as “shared”.

In the case of freedom of religion or belief, for example, this would not be performative contrition. Certain EU member states continue to exhibit an ethno-religious nationalism not very dissimilar in substance – although it must be said not in degree – to the religious nationalism found in the BJP’s Hindutva India.

One of the most basic truths about international relations is that countries want to be treated as sovereign equals. While this is not universally possible, in the case of the EU and India, on FoRB at least, this approach would not have been inappropriate.

Reframe human rights as an interest, as well as a value

EU diplomacy could make use of leverage and the language of shared challenges on human rights while also allowing for a re-conception of the place of human rights therein. Human rights should be promoted as an interest as well as a value. We imagine that the moral urgency of our cause alone will be sufficient to mobilise action. Sadly, this is not always the case. And when we do consider framing human rights also in terms of interests, we worry that mentioning the happy but secondary biproducts of pursuing our cause (for example the domestic popularity of a policy) will somehow undermine the sanctity of our primary motivation (the dignity of all human beings).

However, while it deserves careful treatment, for the sake of realising human rights outcomes, human rights advocates cannot afford to neglect, or be above, the language of interests.

By CSW’s Europe Liaison Officer Jonathan de Leyser