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US warns India over human rights record

July 28, 2021

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned New Delhi not to backslide on human rights, amid mounting criticism that the Indian government is cracking down on dissent and discriminating against its Muslim population.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken holds talks with civil society leaders in India.
The top US diplomat is in India for talks on human rights, vaccines and Afghanistan before heading on to Kuwait.Image: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned India on Wednesday not to backslide on democracy amid mounting criticism from rights groups that civil liberties are under attack.

Blinken, on his first visit to the country since joining US President Joe Biden's administration, held talks on supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, security cooperation, China, and Afghanistan.

But the top US diplomat used his earlier meeting with civil society leaders to press the Indian government on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's human rights record.  

"Both of our democracies are works in progress," Blinken said. "Sometimes that process is painful. Sometimes it's ugly. But the strength of democracy is to embrace it." 

"At a time of rising global threats to democracy and international freedoms — we talk about a democratic recession — it's vital that we two world-leading democracies continue to stand together in support of these ideals," he added.

Later on Wednesday, Blinken met with Prime Minister Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

What has the US said about India's rights record?

The US State Department's latest human rights report on India, the world's largest democracy, released in March, cited a number of human rights abuses.

The report pointed to "unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police" and "restrictions on freedom of expression and the press" including the use of criminal libel laws to police social media.

Earlier this month, an 84-year-old priest and tribal rights activist, charged with terrorism offenses, died after nine months in custody.

It prompted international outrage including from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

A recent religion-based citizenship law is widely seen as discriminatory towards Muslims.

The government denies cracking down on dissent and says people of all religions have equal rights.

Agreement to deepen ties

In his later meeting with Jaishankar, they agreed to widen a multilateral security partnership and sought to strengthen a regional push against China.

"There are few relationships in the world that are more vital than one between the US and India. We are the world's two leading democracies and our diversity fuels our national strength," Blinken said at a joint news conference.

In a separate meeting with Modi, Blinken discussed the coronavirus pandemic, security and defense cooperation, according to a State Department spokesman. These discussions included the Quad regional alliance that also includes Japan and Australia, as well as "shared values and democratic principles." 

Blinken announced a $25 million (€21 million) fund to support India's COVID-19 vaccination program.

What about Afghanistan? 

Indian officials have also expressed concern about the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

New Delhi fears that the Taliban could make large gains once all US troops have left the country.

Blinken told reporters that Afghanistan would become a "pariah state" if the militant group seized power once more.

"There's only one path, and that's at the negotiating table, to resolve the conflict peacefully," Blinken said.

"The Taliban says that it seeks international recognition, that it wants international support for Afghanistan. Presumably it wants its leaders to be able to travel freely in the world, sanctions lifted, etc," he said. "The taking over of the country by force and abusing the rights of its people is not the path to achieve those objectives."

Jaishankar called for an "independent, sovereign, democratic and stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and with its neighbors." He warned that Afghanistan's "independence and sovereignty will only be ensured if it is free from malign influences."

Will Afghanistan's religious minorities seek a new life in India?

The US led an international coalition in the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Western forces moved in to oust the Taliban on the grounds that Al-Qaeda had been using the country as a base on their watch.

aw, jf/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters)