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Space for civil society is being contracted in India: UN Human Rights expert

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Rights activist Binayak Sen. A Division Bench of the Chhattisgrah High Court has begun hearing Dr Sen's appeal against the life sentence awarded to him in a sedition case. The Hindu has reported that a delegation of European Union observers was on Monday allowed by the Chhattisgrah High Court to witness proceedings on rights activist Binayak Sen's appeal against his life term in a sedition case, which his lawyer and Bharatiya Janata Party MP Ram Jethmalani termed as 'political persecution'. When Dr Sen's appeal came up for hearing, a division bench comprising justices T P Sharma and R L Jhanwar considered the reference on the EU proposal made to it by the State government and decided to allow the eight-member team to attend the proceedings. The request of the EU to be present in the court had earlier been sent by the Ministry of External Affairs to the Chhattisgarh government, which had in turn, referred the matter to the High Court. Photo: The Hindu

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, expressed her concern for a contraction of the space for civil society in India, despite the country’s “comprehensive and progressive legal framework as a guarantor of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as the existence of the National Human Rights Commission as well as a number of state and statutory commissions mandated to promote and protect human rights.”

“I am particularly concerned at the plight of human rights defenders working for the rights of marginalized people, i.e. Dalits, Adavasis (tribals), religious minorities and sexual minorities, who face particular risks and ostracism because of their activities,” Sekaggya said at the end of her first fact-finding mission to India.

(The Hindu has reported on the Sekaggya mission and on the Binayak Sen case here.)

Sekaggya underscored the testimonies she received about human rights defenders and their families, who have been killed, tortured, ill-treated, disappeared, threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, falsely charged and under surveillance because of their legitimate work in upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. Photo: The Hindu

In her view, the existing national and state human rights commissions should do much more to ensure a safe and conducive environment for human rights defenders throughout the country. To that end, she urged the Government to review the functioning of the National Human Rights Commission with a view to strengthening it.

The independent expert also noted “the arbitrary application of security laws at the national and state levels, most notably the Public Safety Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as these laws adversely affect the work of human rights defenders”. She urged the Government to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act as well as the Public Safety Act and review the application of other security laws which negatively impact on the situation of human rights defenders.

(The full statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders is here and is from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website.)

“I am deeply concerned about the branding and stigmatization of human rights defenders, labelled as ‘naxalites (Maoists)’, ‘terrorists’, ‘militants’, ‘insurgents’, or ‘anti-nationalists’,” Sekaggya said. Defenders, including journalists, who report on violations by State and non-State actors in areas affected by insurgency are being targeted by both sides.

“I urge the authorities to clearly instruct security forces to respect the work of human rights defenders, conduct prompt and impartial investigations on violations committed against human rights defenders and prosecute perpetrators”. The human rights expert further recommended that the Government “enact a law on the protection of human rights defenders in full and meaningful consultation with civil society.”

Sekaggya commended the Government for opening its doors to her mandate and for enabling her to visit five states, which assisted her in gaining a clear understanding of the local specificities in which human rights defenders work.

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