UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday slammed the Indian government for the tightening of space for human rights NGOs through the recent FCRA amendments and indiscriminate use of UAPA against activists, including Stan Swamy.
Hours later, New Delhi reacted sharply, stating that “violations of law cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights”.
Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, “We have seen some comments by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on an issue relating to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). India is a democratic polity based on rule of law and an independent judiciary. 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.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet appealed to the government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups they represent. She expressed regret at the tightening of space for human rights NGOs in particular, including by the application of “vaguely defined” laws that constrain NGOs’ activities and restrict foreign funding.
“India has long had a strong civil society, which has been at the forefront of groundbreaking human rights advocacy within the country and globally,” Bachelet said. “But I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices.”
Bachelet cited as worrying the use of FCRA, which many UN human rights agencies have said is vaguely worded and over-broad in its objective. The Act prohibits receipt of foreign funds “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest”.
In a statement issued in Geneva, Bachelet said: “The Act, 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. It is expected that the new amendments will create even more administrative and practical hurdles for such advocacy-based NGOs. Most recently, Amnesty International was compelled to close its offices in India after its bank accounts were frozen over alleged violation of the 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 organizations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies,” Bachelet said.
She stated: “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 criminalized or outlawed in this way.”
The statement also said that activists and human rights defenders have come under mounting pressure in recent months, particularly because of their engagement in recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. More than 1,500 people have reportedly been arrested in relation to the protests, many charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – “a law which has also been widely criticized for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards”, she stated, it said.
Charges have also been filed under UAPA against several individuals in connection with demonstrations that date back to 2018. Most recently, 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a longstanding activist engaged in defending rights of marginalised groups, was charged and reportedly remains in detention, despite his poor health.
Bachelet stated: “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. 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.”
Bachelet said the UN Human Rights Office would continue to closely engage with the government on issues relating to promotion and protection of human rights, and will continue to monitor developments that positively and negatively affect civic space and fundamental rights and freedoms.
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