To deny people their rights is to challenge their very humanity.

 -Nelson Mandela

What are Human Rights?

As per United Nations “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.”

10th December, every year is observed as Human Rights Day – the day United Nations General Assembly in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UHDR is a landmark document, asserting the inalienable fundamental rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being. Rights that are universal and egalitarian. Observing this day is reiterating our commitment towards equal human rights, towards worth of humans, to promote social progress and improved standards of life.

While the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in drafting committee of the UDHR, is well known, Hansa Mehta from India deserves a mention. A staunch fighter for women’s rights and the only other female delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947-48, she is credited with changing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal” in Article 1 of the UHDR.

 Human Rights in India

Human Rights in India is a topic complicated by its large size and incredible diversity. India has taken important strides with respect to legal reforms on various aspects of human rights in the recent years like the reading down of Section 377 which decriminalized consensual adult same-sex relations, passing of Transgender Persons Bill towards protecting the rights of transgender community, enactment of RPD (Rights of persons with Disability) bill, aimed at facilitating greater access to public places, education, employment and healthcare to PwDs, the Criminal Law (amendment) Act, stipulating stringent punishment against rape particularly of girls below 12 & 16 years, introducing fast track trials, Beti bachao beti padhao project to prevent gender based sex selection and promote female education and so on.

Despite the introduction of multiple laws and schemes to augment the level of human rights in the country, problems remain. Discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care continue. In the report on ‘Disability Employment’ by TRRAIN (Trust for Retailers & Retail Associates of India), it is estimated that there are about 6-10 crore Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) in India and of them around 1.23 crore in India are uneducated. Though 36 per cent are employed, almost 90 per cent have jobs only in the unorganized sector. Private-sector employment of persons with disabilities has remained low.

The Transgender Persons Bill failed to adequately protect the community, including transgender people’s right to self-identify. LGBTQ groups continue to face widespread societal discrimination and violence, particularly in rural areas.

Numerous cases of brutal rapes across the country expose the failures of the criminal justice system. Girls and women continue to face barriers in reporting such crimes. Victim-blaming is still rampant and inadequate protection laws for witnesses and victims make them even more vulnerable to harassment and threats. Incidents of gang rape of minors have remained prevalent.Whether it is the Nirbhaya case, Unnao case, Kathua case or the recent Hyderabad (Priyanka Reddy) case, these clearly highlight how inefficient our justice system is to protect the basic human rights of women. Even after introducing stringent laws, fast track trials, and numerous candle marches, it has been 7 years and we are yet to see these translate into justice in the Nirbhaya case.

In rural parts of India, discriminatory and abusive practices by local authorities continue unabated. Unofficial village councils like the Khaps in several Indian states, made up of men from dominant castes issue diktats restricting women’s mobility and rights, and condemning couples for marrying outside their caste or religion etc leading to so-called “honor killings” in states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

Human Rights and Role of Organizations

Harmonizing economic growth with the protection of human rights is one of the great challenges we face today. Keeping this challenge in mind, human rights is a key performance indicator for organizations all over the world. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) offers a concrete framework of the duties and responsibilities of businesses to protect human rights.

Organizations have a significant role to play in protecting human rights. Firstly, they need to acknowledge their responsibilities for ensuring their actions are consistent with human rights. This is the first critical step towards public accountability.

Secondly, organizations need to institutionalise their concern for human rights through their decision making, policies, practices and their operational structure of business. It is their responsibility to provide a safe and equitable work environment for women and vulnerable communities like the LGBTQ community and PwDs at the workplace. They need to adopt a zero tolerance policy on any form of workplace discrimination – by strict adherence to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, defining clear anti-discriminatory policies and creating a robust grievance redressal mechanism to counter evils like sexual harassment and bullying at the workplace. With the current state of affairs, they need to go the extra mile to ensure safety of women. It could be in terms of their working hours, travel or even introduction of self-defence trainings for them. Simultaneously, enhancing awareness amongst employees on these through regular trainings/sessions is equally important.

Providing equal opportunities would begin with employing and engaging with PwDs, LGBTQ and other minority communities. Organizations can tie up with agencies/NGOs exclusively offering recruitment support in this area. At the same time ensure inclusive workplace facilities and appropriate infrastructure for them. For an inclusive and equitable culture, organizations need to inculcate practices that are fair like bringing in parity in compensation across genders and providing equal opportunities to all basis merit and performance.

Organizations also have a part to play in supporting the cause outside the workplace. They can drive community development and build social infrastructure through several CSR initiatives like preventive community healthcare, education, enhancing vocational skills and contribution in rural development projects etc.

Lastly, organizations should have formal mechanisms like social audits and reports to measure their performance on human rights issues. This will bring in greater transparency in their efforts to promote the same.

India is becoming a super-power but still majority of the population is facing serious obstacles to acquire even their basic rights. We need the concerned authorities across levels, whether it is the government, judiciary or even organizations to take concrete actions to safeguard the rights of its people. We need an approach which is proactive and result oriented rather that one which is reactive in nature. We can’t wait for more brutal incidents to happen, violating human rights and then expect remedial actions to be taken. The authorities need to be accountable for their actions and focus on effective implementation of laws/policies at the grassroot level to see a progress on human rights in India.