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(London) – India’s human rights situation took serious turns for the worse with respect to civil society protections, sexual violence against women, and the longstanding failure to hold public officials accountable for abuses, Human Rights Watch said today in the release of its World Report 2013. The government did make progress in some areas, including new legislation to protect children from sexual abuse and stronger support for international resolutions to protect human rights in other countries.

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Efforts to end serious abuses by India’s security forces will be hampered so long as a culture of impunity persists in the country, Human Rights Watch said. The government did not revoke the abusive Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides effective immunity to soldiers who commit serious rights violations. In 2013, legislation to prevent torture in custody and hold torturers accountable was once again not enacted.

The government continued to use a colonial-era sedition law and other legislation to silence critics on a range of issues, Human Rights Watch said. These included its handling of the Maoist insurgency to protests against a nuclear power plant in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. There were new restrictions on internet freedom arising in part from concerns about the use of social media to organize protests. And the government continued to use the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to restrict access to foreign funding for domestic organizations.

“The Indian government still doesn’t recognize the serious harm caused by unaccountable security forces and immunity laws,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While top officials frequently point to India’s vibrant and independent civil society as a sign of a thriving democracy, the government increasingly uses its draconian laws that can silence dissent.”

Abuses by both government and opposition forces occurred in India’s conflict areas, Human Rights Watch said. While the level of violence in Jammu and Kashmir has been on a decline for the last two years, several elected village council leaders resigned following threats and attacks from armed separatist militants who oppose any election in the disputed state. In Maoist insurgent areas, villagers remained at risk from both Maoist and state security forces. Violence persisted in the northeastern state of Manipur, while in Assam, violence between indigenous Bodo tribes and Muslim migrant settlers killed at least 97 people and displaced over 450,000.

Violence against women continued unabated with increased reports of sexual assault. After the World Report 2013 went to press, massive protests sparked by the December 16 gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi roiled urban centers across India.

“Global revulsion over the Delhi gang rape should send a message to the Indian leadership to bring about long overdue reforms to criminalize the full range of sexual assault and to protect women’s dignity and rights,” said Ganguly. “Urgently needed are resources to enforce India’s laws and hold accountable officials who don’t discharge their duties in a sensitive way.”

Criminal justice in India took another step back in November when the government ended its eight-year unofficial moratorium on executions by hanging Pakistani national Ajmal Kasab, convicted for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Some political leaders have made renewed calls for the execution of others on death row, and urged the execution of rapists.

As a positive step, the parliament passed a new law to protect children from sexual abuse and the government sought to extend the ban on employment of children under 14 to many industries beyond hazardous jobs.The government also took significant action toward encouraging medical care centers, especially cancer centers, to offer palliative care to alleviate the suffering of millions of persons with incurable diseases from pain and other symptoms.

For some victims and families of victims of the bloody 2002 Gujarat riots, justice came at last in the form of prosecutions of several suspects, resulting in more than 75 convictions in the last year. These included the conviction of Maya Kodnani, a former minister and a leader of Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu organization.
Internationally, India supported several United Nations resolutions aimed at promoting human rights in other countries, most significantly Sri Lanka. Deviating from its past unwillingness to publicly criticize the Sri Lankan government for alleged war crimes and other abuses, India voted in favor of an important resolution at the UN Human Rights Council calling for post-war reconciliation and accountability. On Syria too, it voted in favor of UN Security Council resolutions concerning the escalating violence there.

“The Indian government’s obligations to support and respect universal human rights should not stop at India’s borders,” said Ganguly. “India can and should improve the human rights situation at home while speaking out firmly on behalf of the oppressed abroad.”

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