Safeguard rights of NGOs: UN human rights chief to India

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent | Edited by Smriti Sinha
Oct 20, 2020 09:39 PM IST

Michelle Bachelet asked the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry on with their work on behalf of the groups they represent

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday expressed regret at the tightening of space for human rights NGOs in India, including by the application of vaguely worded laws that constrain their activities and restrict foreign funding.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.(File photo)
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.(File photo)

Bachelet asked the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry on with their work on behalf of the groups they represent.

“India has long had a strong civil society, which has been at the forefront of groundbreaking human rights advocacy within the country and globally,” she said. “But I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices.”

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In a statement, Bachelet specifically cited as “worrying” the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which a number of UN human rights bodies have expressed concern about, because it is “vaguely worded and overbroad in its objective”.

The act prohibits the receipt of foreign funds “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest”. The act, which was adopted in 2010 and amended last month, has had a “detrimental impact on the right to freedom of association and expression of human rights NGOs, and as a result on their ability to serve as effective advocates to protect and promote human rights in India”, the statement said.

Late on Tuesday evening, external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava responded to the comments on FCRA by saying: “India is a democratic polity based on the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The framing of laws is obviously a sovereign prerogative.

“Violations of law, however, cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights. A more informed view of the matter was expected of a UN body.”

People familiar with developments, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected the criticism and said India is a pluralistic democracy with a “robust domestic grievance redress mechanism” overseen by an independent judiciary and a National Human Rights Commission compliant with the Paris Principles.

“These mechanisms are fully capable of addressing all allegations of violations of human rights anywhere in India. India has been at the forefront of promoting and protecting all human rights in line with its international obligations and remains committed to doing so in the future,” said one of the people cited above.

The statement said it was expected that the new amendments to FCRA will create “even more administrative and practical hurdles for such advocacy-based NGOs”. The statement noted that Amnesty International was compelled to close its offices in India after its bank accounts were frozen over alleged violation of FCRA.

“The FCRA has been invoked over the years to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts, to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organisations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies,” Bachelet said.

“I am concerned that such actions based on the grounds of vaguely defined ‘public interest’ leave this law open to abuse, and that it is indeed actually being used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy that the authorities perceive as critical in nature. Constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Even if the authorities find it uncomfortable, it should never be criminalised or outlawed in this way,” she added.

The statement noted that activists and human rights defenders had come under mounting pressure In India in recent months, particularly over mass protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act across the country earlier this year. “More than 1,500 people have reportedly been arrested in relation to the protests, with many charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – a law which has also been widely criticised for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards,” the statement said.

Charges have been filed under this law against individuals in connection with demonstrations dating back to 2018, including the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, whom the statement described as a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalised groups.

“I urge the government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society,” Bachelet said.

“I also urge the authorities to carefully review the FCRA for its compliance with international human rights standards and to release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”

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