Michelle Bachelet, the UN High commissioner for Human Rights, has appealed the Indian government to safeguard the rights go human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups they represent.
“India has long had a strong civil society, which has been at the forefront of ground breaking human rights advocacy with the country and globally’’, the high commissioner said. “but I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices.”
According to Bachelet, “The use of Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), has concerned a number of UN human rights bodies as the act is vaguely worded and overboard in its objective. The act prohibits the receipt of foreign funds “for any activities prejudicial to public interest”.
The FCRA was 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 supreme court, last month has significantly narrowed the definition of what constitutes ‘political activity’ under the act. Most recently amnesty international was compelled to close its offices in India after its bank accounts were frozen over alleged violation of FCRA.
“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 id the lifeblood of democracy.”
The UN Human Rights Commission-which oversees implementation of the International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights to which India is a party – has found that when a state invokes national security and protection of public order as reason to restrict the right to freedom of association, the state party must show the specific nature of the threat or risk posed, and limit its responses to those necessary and the proportionate to address such threat or risks.
Activists and human rights defenders have also come under attack in recent months, particularly because of their engagement in protests against the Citizenship Amendment at that took place across the country earlier this year. A large number of people have been arrested and charges have been framed against them under the UAPA, in relation to the demonstrations. The act has been criticised for lack of conformity with human right standards.
The high commissioner has urged the Indian 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 obliged to protect”, Bachelet said.
(Anusha Agrawal is a third-year law student pursuing B.A.LL.B (Hons.) from National Law University Odisha and an intern with The Leaflet.)