After several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations with the government, the unions backing the protest intensified their agitation by organising a tractor rally in the capital on January 26 that descended into violence and chaos. (HT PHOTO).
After several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations with the government, the unions backing the protest intensified their agitation by organising a tractor rally in the capital on January 26 that descended into violence and chaos. (HT PHOTO).

Farmers' protest shows need for laws in sync with stakeholders: UN rights chief

  • The UN high commissioner for human rights was also critical of action taken by Indian authorities against journalists covering the protests and efforts to curb freedom of expression on social media.
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 08:10 PM IST

The continuing farmers’ protests in India against three farm laws highlight the importance of ensuring that legislations are based on meaningful consultations with stakeholders, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Friday.

Bachelet made the remarks while updating the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on human rights issues in more than 50 countries. The UN human rights agency had earlier this month called on both protesting farmers and authorities to exercise “maximum restraint” and find “equitable solutions”.

The UN high commissioner for human rights was also critical of action taken by Indian authorities against journalists covering the protests and efforts to curb freedom of expression on social media. She also said UNHRC was monitoring the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where restrictions on communications continued to be a concern.

“In India, continued protests by hundreds of thousands of farmers highlight the importance of ensuring laws and policies are based on meaningful consultations with those concerned,” Bachelet said in her address.

“I trust that ongoing dialogue efforts by both sides will lead to an equitable solution to this crisis that respects the rights of all,” she said.

“Charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests, and attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media, are disturbing departures from essential human rights principles,” Bachelet added.

The government’s handling of the farmers’ protest, which began on November 26 last year, has been criticised by celebrities, lawmakers and political leaders in several countries. The government has defended the three new laws as necessary for long overdue reforms in the agricultural sector. After several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations with the government, the unions backing the protest intensified their agitation by organising a tractor rally in the capital on January 26 that descended into violence and chaos.

Bachelet said UNHRC is continuing to monitor the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, “where restrictions on communications, and clampdowns on civil society activists, remain of concern”. She added, “Despite recent restoration of 4G access for mobile phones, the communications blockade has seriously hampered civic participation, as well as business, livelihoods, education, and access to healthcare and medical information.”

Raids against human rights defenders in October and November “exemplify the continued restrictions on civil society”, and have an impact on the rights of Kashmiri people to “impart and receive information, and to engage in free, open debate on government policies affecting them”, she said.

Bachelet also described internet access in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as a “serious problem” that had prompted student protests in the past year.

She, however, lauded a pilot programme in Kerala, where officials, civil society organisations and community leaders have used innovative technology to ensure that the “voices of marginalised and poor people are heard, and their needs addressed, in the pandemic response”.

There was no immediate response from Indian officials to Bachelet’s remarks.

Turning to Pakistan, Bachelet said the unequal status of women continues to lead to “widespread denial of their rights, from education to the right to make decisions about their own lives; excessive maternal mortality; poverty, and high levels of violence and sexual violence against women and girls”.

Last year, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) found “persistent discriminatory stereotypes" and expressed concern at the prevalence of child marriage and forced marriage, as well as so-called “honour” crimes, in Pakistan.

“Women from religious minority communities are particularly vulnerable to forced marriage accompanied by forced conversion. I urge Pakistan to support and protect women human rights defenders and journalists who are at the forefront of efforts to promote legal and societal change,” she said.

While China has made strong progress over the past year in reducing prevalence of Covid-19 and its severe impact on a broad range of human rights, fundamental rights and civic freedoms continue to be curtailed in the name of national security and the pandemic response, Bachelet said.

“Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders – as well as some foreign nationals – face arbitrary criminal charges, detention or unfair trials. In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, more than 600 people are being investigated for participating in various forms of protests – some under the new National Security Law,” she said.

In Xinjiang, information in the public domain shows the need for “independent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation” and the high commissioner’s office continues to assess alleged patterns of human rights violations, including reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and sexual violence in institutions, coercive labour practises, and erosion of social and cultural rights, she said.

“I am confident that through our ongoing dialogue we will find mutually agreeable parameters for my visit to China,” she added.

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