Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: EU and India Agree ‘Strategic Partnership’

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Nov 8 2004 (IPS) - The European Union and India have signed an unprecedented "strategic partnership" deal amidst concerns over India’s human rights record.

Top European Union (EU) officials and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed the agreement Monday (Nov. 8) at the 5th EU-India summit in The Hague, the Netherlands.

The agreement outlines how the two sides will cooperate on trade, research, development, counter-terrorism, shipping, regional concerns, conflict resolution, the environment and space exploration.

Both sides said they also hope to work closer on improving cultural ties and cooperate more in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

The partnership is due to be fully in effect by January next year.

Shortly after the meeting the EU and India declared that progress had been made in a range of areas.

"We agree to intensify cooperation and take action to facilitate and expand bilateral trade and investment flows, given the importance of realising the potential of growing India and EU markets and the mutual benefits of increased economic interaction," said a 10-page statement released after the summit.

Both parties also condemned all acts of terrorism and pledged to take "comprehensive and sustained" measures to combat the menace.

"We stress that further strengthening cooperation in combating terrorism is a priority area for EU-India action plan for a strategic partnership that will seek to deepen the international consensus and enhance international efforts to combat terrorism," the statement continued.

The EU was represented by Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, Romano Prodi, outgoing president of the European Commission, EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana and Pascal Lamy, outgoing trade commissioner.

Prime minister Singh was accompanied by Indian external affairs minister Natwar Singh and commerce and industry minister Kamal Nath.

The agreement means that India will become a special EU partner alongside the United States, Canada, China and Russia.

However, some human rights groups say the EU has "reneged" on its responsibility to address human rights issues with India in recent years. They are urging more "frank and open dialogue" between the two parties.

A coalition of three human rights groups – the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), which campaigns against caste-based discrimination – says the EU’s engagement with India has "burgeoned in economic terms and failed in human rights terms."

The groups say that in spite of India’s recent high rate of economic growth, there is a "dark side" to the subcontinent.

They say human rights abuses include "the rampant and unchecked use of torture by police, the impunity of people responsible for inter-religious massacres and crimes against humanity, the extensive definitions of anti-terrorism laws, bonded labour, violence against women, the re-application of the death penalty."

The groups add that India has also failed to meet its requirements in the United Nations by failing to submit reports for eight years to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which monitors human rights records, and for 13 years to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

They add that India is also neglecting to ratify the Convention against Torture, which prohibits such actions.

The groups say that such issues are "very serious" and demand urgent attention.

"When the EU fails to raise human rights concerns with a vibrant constitutional democracy it begs the question: what is India so sensitive about?" says IDSN coordinator Rikke Nöhrlind.

The groups hope that the new government installed earlier this year will carry out its promises to address these issues.

"The EU must now more than ever stand by its principle of human rights for all, and use every means in its power – including diplomacy, trade and aid – to encourage and assist India to meet these challenges," says FIDH president Sidiki Kaba.

The EU plans to double trade with India by 2008. The EU rivals the United States as India’s largest trading partner, accounting for around 23 percent of its exports in 2002..

The EU says two-way trade rose three times to 33 billion dollars from 1992 to 2002.

Singh’s meeting with the EU follows a successful visit to the United States in September.

In Washington he argued India’s case as an attractive investment destination, a future permanent member of the United Nations security council, as a peacemaker with Pakistan and a trusted partner.

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