By Muslim Mirror Desk
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 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 NGOs’ activities and restrict foreign funding.
In a statement, Bachelet said that activists and human rights defenders have also come under mounting pressure in recent months, particularly because of their engagement in mass protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that took place 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 criticized for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards, she added.
She cited as worrying the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which a number of UN human rights bodies* have also expressed concern is vaguely worded and overbroad in its objective. The Act prohibits the receipt of foreign funds “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest.”
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.
“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.”
She urged the government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. She also urged 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.”
Earlier this year, in a welcome development for advocacy-based NGOs, India’s Supreme Court significantly narrowed the definition of what constitutes a “political activity” under the FCRA. “I encourage India’s national institutions to strengthen the social and legal protections that enable civil society to function freely and contribute to progress,” the High Commissioner said.