(Geneva) – United Nations member countries should call on India to stop targeting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and others who criticize the government or its policies, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN Human Rights Council will conduct its third review of India’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) procedure on May 4, 2017, in Geneva.
A Human Rights Watch submission to the UN on India highlights the government’s abuse of overly broad laws to clamp down on NGOs and on the right to freedom of expression. The submission also details India’s failure to contain and prosecute vigilante attacks on minorities by groups supporting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the lack of accountability for killings, torture, and other serious violations by state security forces.
“The UN review comes at a time when freedoms long-cherished in India are seriously being challenged and critics are increasingly under attack,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “UN member countries should raise alarm bells that India’s proud history of respect for peaceful dissent crucial for protecting the poor and vulnerable is at real risk.”
Since its last review in 2012, the Indian government has taken some positive steps. In 2013, the government amended its criminal laws to strengthen legal response to sexual assault against women. It also enacted new laws to protect rights, including to prosecute child sex abuse and to end the degrading and inhuman practice of “manual scavenging,” the cleaning of human excreta by hand. It has amended laws to protect Dalit and tribal communities.
The government has decided to ratify the International Labour Organization Convention Nos. 138 and 182 on minimum age of employment and worst forms of child labor. The Supreme Court of India opposed impunity for security forces under laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). The court also recognized transgender people as a third gender, and ordered a review of its earlier judgment that had upheld a discriminatory colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality.
Most urgently, UN member countries should flag concerns over the arbitrary use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict foreign funding for NGOs, which a UN special rapporteur concluded was “not in conformity with international law, principles, and standards.” In October 2016, the government refused to allow foreign funding for at least 25 NGOs, including several human rights groups and those defending the rights of the most marginalized.
Since the BJP-led government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, extremist Hindu groups have led mob attacks across the country to enforce “Hindu nationalism.” Peaceful critics of the government have been charged with serious crimes such as sedition. There have been numerous incidents of violence against members of Dalit, Muslim, tribal, and Christian communities. Hindu vigilante groups killed at least 10 Muslims in separate incidents across the country since 2015 over suspicions that they killed, sold, or bought cows for beef. Churches were attacked in several states in 2015.
The authorities did not press robustly for prosecution of those responsible for the violence, and impunity for the assailants has contributed to a sense of government indifference to religious intolerance and majority targeting of minority communities.
Security forces and public officials remain largely unaccountable for serious human rights abuses. A May 2015 report by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions concluded that “impunity remains a serious problem” and expressed regret that India had not repealed or at least significantly amended the AFSPA.
The government’s failure to ensure justice for crimes committed by security forces in areas facing insurgency, and those under AFSPA, have fueled further violence, including attacks on security forces and public property. The government’s response to violent street protests in Jammu and Kashmir state since July 2016 has resulted in nearly 100 deaths and left thousands injured, including protesters, bystanders, and members of security forces.
Numerous members of tribal communities across the country have been arbitrarily arrested and detained as suspected Maoist sympathizers across the country, as well as journalists, lawyers, and activists in Chhattisgarh state, faced harassment and arbitrary arrest. Police reforms remained stalled even as police were accused of torture and extrajudicial killings in a number of new cases.
The Indian government also failed to carry out recommendations from previous UPR reviews to ratify key human rights treaties. They include the Convention against Torture and its optional protocol, the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights abolishing the death penalty, and the International Labour Organization Convention No. 189 on domestic work.
“India likes to point to its courts as the ultimate defender of human rights in the country, but the government has often ignored judicial orders for police reform or security force accountability,” Ganguly said. “UN member countries should impress upon India that it should treat the UN review as an opportunity for honest reflection and to carve a way forward.”