Category: India

Linking India’s performance at the Human Rights Council to the overall situation of civil society space in the country

Freedom of expression is protected under the Indian constitution and other international treaties to which India is a party. Indeed, India has always been proud of its robust democratic heritage with its thriving and diverse civil society space. Expressing one’s opinion and arguing one’s point of view has always been an Indian character trait best epitomised by Amartya Sen’s classic “The Argumentative Indian”. Public debate has recently been stifled, however, through various laws at the national and state levels and harsh actions taken to criminalise peaceful expression. Draconian laws such as the sedition provision of the penal code, the criminal defamation law and laws dealing with hate speech to silence dissent are commonly used by the Government. These laws are vaguely worded, antiquated, overly broad, prone to misuse, and have been repeatedly used for political purposes against critics across the country.

A big bone of contention is the controversial Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). The Act regulates foreign funding for domestic NGOs and prohibits funding in cases where activities are deemed to be detrimental to national interest. Due to the use of vague and broad terms such as “political nature”, “economic interest of the State” or “public interest” to denote what is deemed detrimental, the Government has been able to arbitrarily decide whether to cancel the FCRA licenses of NGOs across the country with foreign funding to NGOs dropping by half last year, amid up to 10,500 suspended licenses.

In a joint statement in June 2016, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, and on human rights defenders called for the Act to be repealed, stressing that it fails to comply with international human rights norms and standards. “We are alarmed that FCRA provisions are being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government,” they remarked.

Against the backdrop of the current climate for freedom of expression in India, the Government took a regressive position on A/HRC/RES/32/31 on “Civil society space”, adopted during the 32nd session of the Council. India remarked that “civil society must operate within the framework of domestic laws.” The Government rejected the view espoused by the Special Rapporteurs, indicating that it felt that the FCRA does not need to comply with international human rights norms and standards. The fact that India voted in favour of all amendments to the resolution is particularly worrying as many of these amendments provide a borad leeway for States to be able to restrict the freedom of assembly and expression of civil society as they see fit, as soon as opinion diverges from State-sponsored interests.

The affirmation of such views goes against the very nature of India’s rich democratic roots, in which the understanding and use of an argumentative tradition have always been, and will always be, critically important, for the success of India’s democracy, the defence of its secular politics, the removal of inequalities related to class, caste, gender and community, and the pursuit of sub-continental peace.

Country Profile: India

Introduction

India has been a member of the Human Rights Council (HRC) for four terms in 2006-07, 2007-10, 2011-14, and 2014-17.

Thematic Issues

India has been a main sponsor of resolutions on mental health, national institutions, business and human rights, regional cooperation and elimination of all forms of discrimination based on religion or belief. It has also co-sponsored resolutions on health, judicial independence and other themes.

Freedom of Assembly and of Association

India co-sponsored a resolution on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in September 2010.

Freedom of Opinion and Expression

India co-sponsored a resolution on freedom of opinion and expression in September 2009, and on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights and the Internet in June 2012. It has also co-sponsored resolutions on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in 2008 and 2011.

Human Rights Defenders

India has not sponsored resolutions on human rights defenders. It has actively participated in debates on civil society space resolutions. However, this engagement has been counterintuitive to the spirit of the resolution as it questions the nature of civil society and proposes amendments limiting its ability to operate through restrictions on funding.

Country-Specific Issues

India has also only co-sponsored one country-specific resolution on Afghanistan. India has voted in favour of resolutions on Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Golan Heights, Palestine, Sri Lanka, and Syria. It has voted against resolutions on Iran and Belarus. India chose to abstain from resolutions on Iran, Palestine, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Syria and Ukraine.

India has not engaged with the Council on many country-specific resolutions, showing a distinct hesitation to promote country specific scrutiny. However, it has voted in favour of 31 resolutions on Palestine, showing support towards the Palestinian cause. It has also engaged with resolutions calling for the promotion of reconciliation, accountability and human rights in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Universal Periodic Review

During the second cycle of the UPR, India was reviewed on 24 May 2012. It accepted 56 recommendations of 170 and noted 114.

Recommendations received focused broadly on torture, international instruments, women’s rights, rights of the child, the death penalty and health. Human rights defenders, national human rights institution, minorities, civil society, freedom of religion and belief, sexual orientation and gender identity, and disabilities were also mentioned.

As a recommending state, India has made recommendations broadly focused upon women’s rights, national human rights institutions, development, justice, the ratification of international instruments, health, rights of the child and disabilities.

India at the 33rd Session of Human Rights Council: the human rights issues that received wide attention from the Council

By Wipada Panichpathom, FORUM-ASIA

India is a current member of the Human Rights Council and will continue until 2017. The Indian delegation participated actively during the 33rd session and made many interventions during discussions under Item 2 (general debate), Item 3, Item 4, and Item 10. However, it did not co-sponsor any resolution unlike the previous session.

The High Commissioner, in his oral update, referred to allegations of excessive use of force on civilians in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir and requested the Governments of India and Pakistan to grant international access to both sides of the line of control so that an independent and impartial assessment can be conducted.

NGOs made a total of 43 statements throughout the three-week session on the issue. During the Item 4 general debate, FORUM-ASIA echoed the High Commissioner’s concerns in relation to reports of excessive use of force on unarmed protesters. It further highlighted a case of alleged reprisal where a human rights defender was unable to attend the 33rd session due to restrictions and subsequent detention by the government.

Pakistan was vocal on the situation in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir prompting replies from India. However, despite intense exchanges between the two countries neither governments adequately responded to concerns raised by NGOs and OHCHR.