10 July 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) None gains: On U.S. withdrawal from WHO-
- On July 6, the number of novel coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. reached over 2.8 million and nearly 0.13 million, respectively.
- The U.S. officially notified the United Nations of its intention to withdraw membership from the World Health Organization.
- This comes after President Donald Trump announced on May 29 his decision to halt funding and pull out of the global health body.
DEFLECTING THE BLAME:
- After accusing WHO of being “China-centric” on multiple occasions, this unfortunate development is one more attempt by Mr. Trump to deflect blame for gross mismanagement of the crisis.
- In a May 18 letter, he officially demanded that the WHO make “major substantive improvements” in 30 days.
- He charged that the global body lacked “independence” from China, was slow to respond to the threat, and had “repeatedly made inaccurate or misleading claims” about the virus.
- Since the decision has apparently been taken without the approval of Congress, and as the withdrawal will become effective only on July 6 next year, there is a possibility that Congress or courts might reverse the withdrawal.
- Already, Democratic challenger Joe Biden has promised to revoke it if elected President.
- There is much at stake and unsurprisingly Congress is already under pressure from academia and medical associations to reject the withdrawal.
- The capricious(variable) decision to withdraw from WHO will have dire consequences for global public health.
- The departure of the U.S. will be a significant blow to the WHO in terms of loss of technical expertise and, according to Mr. Trump, an annual funding of about $450 million.
- The pandemic has clearly brought to the fore(focus) several shortcomings and weaknesses in the global health body.
- For instance, the 2005 revision of the International Health Regulations made it mandatory for countries to notify the WHO of all events that may constitute an international public health emergency.
- Yet, the WHO has limited power to ensure compliance by member States, including limitations in independently verifying member states’ official reports.
- If the U.S. was majorly involved in the 2005 IHR revision, it will now have no role to play in strengthening the WHO.
- It will lose a seat at the table to determine the virus strain to be used for developing influenza vaccines and have no access to new influenza virus samples for research.
- US will lose out on health intelligence that will compromise the country’s response to international disease outbreaks.
- In the end, none gains from a further weakened WHO.
- The U.S. stands to lose by withdrawing from the WHO; it will forego health intelligence.
2) Is Internet freedom being sacrificed for national security?
- The government’s decision to block 59 Chinese apps has once again spotlighted the vulnerability of Internet freedom at a time of national security.
- We explore the delicate balance between freedom of expression and national security.
Q. The Centre’s move to block 59 Chinese apps has brought to the fore the inherently tricky ‘national security versus digital rights’ question. How do you view this?
- It is important first to clarify whose rights we are talking about. If it is the right of (these) Chinese companies, then of course, these rights have been affected.
- If it is the rights of Indian individuals who use platforms like TikTok either to run their business or to just become popular, I don’t think there is a rights violation there.
- I can do the same thing by moving to another platform.
- Section 69A [of the Information Technology Act], which has been used, is not a new power that the government is commandeering during a time of national security emergency.
- It must be a genuine national security risk, and the necessity of blocking the app must be very clearly made out by the government.
- And that is the way we try and resolve this question of where do we draw the line between this trade-off between national security, which is important, and rights, which are equally important.
- It is important to remember that India is signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- There is a certain basic understanding that regulation of the Internet or Internet-based services by governments has to respect basic human rights standards.
- For a government to block service or to block any access to content or take other coercive steps that may intrude upon people’s fundamental rights and freedoms, it has to follow what in international law is often called the three-part test.
- That requires action that is very clear; that could not have been done by a less intrusive means; and that follows standards of necessity and proportionality.
- In India, it is very clear that our fundamental right to free speech and expression applies to online content (too).
- Our own Supreme Court has said that.
- The challenge in this particular situation is that the blocking of an entire service and app by the Indian government is a remarkable and a rather extraordinary step.
- And one would therefore go and ask (whether there were) less intrusive means that could have been followed.
- And if you do believe, for example, there are other concerns relating to security, which is one of the grounds allowed under Indian law, as well as other larger concerns on data and cybersecurity which the Indian government does not right now have any legal basis to take clear action on because it itself has not enacted law on that subject, they have to make that information available.
- It troubles me that that information is not there.
- And perhaps, in this case, what has happened is that concerns around national security or other geopolitical concerns have intervened to result in censorship administrative action...
- And that test of whether this is a proportionate restriction perhaps may not have been met.
- More specifically, the use of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act has been criticised in some quarters, with one of the criticisms being that it isn’t designed for data protection compliance.
- And it is also argued that it is set for more specific violations rather than broad general violations, as you mentioned.
- The fact is that Section 69A has a limited set of defined grounds under which the government can take action.
- Those are often wide grounds, including security of the state that, as we know, over the last few years, the Union Government as well as several State governments have unfortunately taken very wide views of, but data protection isn’t one of them.
- And also, if you look at other actions taken by other regulators, what they initiate is action under a data protection framework where they investigate the entity, see whether other mechanisms could be followed (orders, fines etc).
- Even under our existing legal framework regarding blocking of content, there are two mechanisms.
- There is the normal process by which a government department complains to the Central government officer and a committee reviews it, and an emergency process by which orders are issued and then a subsequent review is taken.
- They have done an emergency blocking order, and then said these platforms should perhaps come to them and make a case as to why they should be unblocked and these interim orders could be overridden.
- And more importantly, ultimately, Section 69A is a censorship power, a controversial one that is not well designed to protect people’s rights.
- There is a wider point that Raman makes that I agree with, which is the fact that 69A is perhaps not fit for the purpose.
- But I think that the larger point is that the banning of the apps, as we all kind of have guessed, has become a proxy for a larger geopolitical battle.
- And I think that whenever we discuss the question of how the apps were banned, and the processes that were followed, while those are relevant questions, and we must ask them, but I think this is a larger question that needs to be asked in terms of both Internet freedom in India as well as in China.
How do you both see the system going from here to becoming a fairer system?
- The first step in that path is something that the government itself could do.
- Currently, when the Government of India issues blocking orders under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, it asserts secrecy and confidentiality in those orders.
- This is, in fact, not something required by Parliament. The government should immediately stop asserting that privilege, so that the public indeed knows what is being blocked and for what reason.
- I would also argue that that is now a constitutional requirement.
- The Supreme Court in the issue of Internet shutdowns in the Anuradha Bhasin judgment said very clearly that any order blocking people’s rights to liberty, especially in relation to the Internet, requires to be published.
- It can also undertake broader reforms, as well as a review of Section 69A itself.
- As somebody who has worked in the technology sector in both industry as well as now nonprofit and human rights roles, I can tell you that the blocking list in India is actually a shockingly long one, perhaps tens of thousands of websites that have been blocked over a period since the late 1990s.
- That is not a position India wants to be in. India never wants to be compared to China, or other totalitarian despotic regimes.
- The reality today is that on cybersecurity, we don’t have a clear strategy in architecture.
- The Indian government has tried to do its best over the last few months to consult on a new national cybersecurity strategy, so it is clear as to who is in charge, what legal powers they may have, although again, legal powers are a subject determined by Parliament, as well as who responds, where does the buck stop? That, unfortunately, is not clear right now.
- China is intimately involved in the global technology supply chain. That is not a fact that is going away.
- And, therefore, if we are saying that due to legitimate border or other conflict concerns, as well as perhaps other national strategy, we wish to contain or restrict that in a manner that protects human rights but also in a manner that is effective, we need an open conversation on what that process is.
- That is not happening right now.
- There has been a mindset within the government, particularly on issues relating to national security, that agencies can work best when they work outside the law.
- So, I think overall, there needs to be a change in mindset for national security agencies.
- They must all be brought under a legal framework where we understand what everybody’s powers are.
- We just have to know the extent of their powers. And if they have overstepped their bounds, then there must be consequences as there are consequences for everyone else.
- If we are going to look at it in terms of Section 69A, we can discuss it, but the point is that the Supreme Court in the Shreya Singhal case did indeed uphold Section 69A while striking down Section 66A.
- So, the point is that we need to think about a larger change of mindset.
- We have seen one part of the ecosystem, where some homegrown Indian companies are probably rejoicing at the decision, but there are broader long-term consequences.
- The fact of the matter is that the banning of the Chinese apps is an incident of a larger dispute.
- And if that dispute resolves itself, this will resolve itself too. At the end of the day, there is a reason why those apps are so popular right?
- It is because they work. And the reason why Chinese products are in the global supply chain is because they are producing a certain quality at a certain price.
- What Indian tech companies should essentially be looking at is in trying to improve their products, so that they can compete globally.
- Currently, we are nowhere close.
- We have to ask ourselves collectively as to whether we can preside over these years of technological hardship where products from China and other countries which are cheaper will not be available because of hopes of a brighter tomorrow.
- Number two, if they [the officials] have come to the conclusion that this is a price that we are willing to pay for longer term gains, then in that case, we have to set in motion certain sets of policies to ensure that Indian industry is appropriately incentivised.
- By making it a little bit unfortunately too clear that this is due to geopolitical reasons, India [becomes] vulnerable from a trade law perspective.
- It allows China to claim the moral high ground in trade talks. That is just a fact.
- Today, Indian apps servicing a global market could be forced to comply with government orders issued in India that apply to residents elsewhere.
- So, we do need to have an honest conversation around privacy and data that recognises that we are part of a global interlinked Internet. That is not yet happening.
3) Owning up to criminalisation in politics-
GS 2- Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability
- A February 2020 Supreme Court judgment on criminalisation in politics may have far-reaching consequences for Indian democracy.
- It will first be implemented in the coming Bihar elections in October 2020.
- The Court has asked the political parties to state “the reasons for such selection, as also as to why other individuals without criminal antecedents(background) could not be selected as candidates.”
- If a political party fails to comply, it would be “… in contempt(violation) of this Court’s orders/directions.”
- In other words, the political party and its leadership would for the first time have to publicly own up to criminalisation of politics.
- They had been denying it all these years.
(a) each candidate shall submit a sworn affidavit giving financial details and criminal cases;
(b) each candidate shall inform the political party in writing of criminal cases against him or her; and
(c) the party shall put up on its website and on social media as well as publish in newspapers the names and details of such candidates.
WHY DID THE COURT PASS SUCH AN ORDER?
- The judgment notes that “In 2004, 24% of the Members of Parliament had criminal cases pending against them; in 2009, that went up to 30%; in 2014 to 34%; and in 2019 as many as 43% of MPs had criminal cases pending against them.”
- India is the only democratic country with a free press where we find a problem of this dimension.
AN EVER-PRESENT CRISIS:
- We are in the midst of more immediate crises.
A) the COVID-19 outbreak,
B) the economic recession,
C) the migrant workers crisis,
D) small businesses shutting down in many sectors,
E) massive unemployment,
F) a highly stressed banking and financial sector,
G) and now the conflict with China.
- Added to this is an ever-present silent crisis: the steady deterioration in politics over decades, with the decline accelerating in the past 16 years.
- As politics dominates the bureaucracy, and reins in business, civil society and the media, we need governance that is free of the “criminal” virus. Capability is not sufficient.
- The intent to do public service is also required. The British were capable, but we still did not want them.
- Today, it is not about any party, it is about the political system.
- The result has been that we get bad governance, and survey after survey show that people around the country are unhappy with the quality of governance. Given limited choices, they vote as best as they can.
- But no matter how many parties are changed, governance does not really improve, a few exceptions apart.
- Using money power to buy MLAs and MPs sometimes makes a mockery of election outcomes.
- Meanwhile, electoral bonds bring secrecy back into political funding.
- Several laws and court judgments have not helped much, as the data show. One reason is lack of enforcement of laws and judgments.
- It is also not clear what penalty would be imposed if the recent orders are not followed.
- Would the law enforcement agencies act vigorously to ensure that the guilty are prosecuted?
- Would any top political leader responsible for not complying be found guilty? Would an election be set aside?
- Without such action, will there be change?
- Therefore in the coming Bihar elections we need to be far more vigilant.
- This includes monitoring the affidavits of candidates, working with the Election Commission to ensure that information is promptly available on their websites.
- And widely circulating this information to voters using all the social media tools available.
- It also includes monitoring compliance with the Supreme Court judgment to see if details of tainted candidates are promptly put up on their websites, and on their social media handles.
- The Court has said that “winnability” cannot be cited as a reason.
- Voters also need to be vigilant(careful) about misuse of money, gifts and other inducements during elections.
- Till we realise that people who bribe us for votes cannot be trusted, change will be very slow.
- Fortunately, an ever-growing number of voters and organisations are joining in this work of cleansing politics.
- Meanwhile, the waters will be muddied with fake news, trolling, and fanciful claims.
- This may drown out the little that citizens can do. Yet there is hope.
- Ensuring prosecution with public pressure may help.
- If one political leader is hauled up for giving ticket to large numbers of tainted candidates, something positive may happen.
- A root cause diagnosis shows that political party leaders are squarely responsible for this state of affairs as they field such candidates.
- The Court order is to be welcomed. But we are still unable to ban people with serious criminal charges from contesting elections.
- While there are various arguments for and against such a move, the Court has dismissed several petitions calling for a ban due to legal and technical constraints.
- Meanwhile, the political system is unwilling to change the law or the system.
- Politics for now has been captured by those who want power for its own sake.
- In conclusion, we may not see dramatic changes in the quality of candidates.
- Campaigns may continue to be more and more personal and even abusive.
- We may not see a big change in money power, or in buying of MLAs post-elections in the case of a hung(fractured mandate) Assembly.
- But all these steps are required, however insignificant they may seem.
- All the dozen and more Supreme Court judgments on electoral reforms since 2002 are in fact responses to citizen initiatives.
- Not one initiative has come from the political system. The strategy so far has been to methodically try and break down the solid wall of corruption.
- When the dam will be breached and the pure waters of a new India flow over the land cannot be predicted.