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31 January, 2011

Bolstering civil society

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India has a comprehensive and progressive legal framework which guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms but there are widespread deficiencies in implementation, Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said on the conclusion of an 11-day visit to the country earlier this month.

The Special Rapporteur, whose mandate flows from the UN General Assembly’s 1998 declaration on human rights defenders, was on a fact-finding visit. She interacted with officials in New Delhi and in the states of Orissa, West Bengal, Assam, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir and received representations from several human rights organisations.

“Throughout my mission,” Ms Sekaggya said, “I heard numerous testimonies about male and female human rights defenders and their families who have been killed, tortured, ill-treated, disappeared, threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, falsely charged, under surveillance, forcibly displaced, or their offices raided and files stolen, because of their legitimate work in upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

She noted that the violations were generally attributed to law enforcement authorities. However, there were also cases in which they colluded with armed groups.

She saw all this as evidence of shrinking of the space for civil society. She observed that the working of the judiciary, the primary avenue for legal redress, was hampered by backlog and delays in the handling of cases of human rights violations.

Pending the formulation of detailed proposals after analysing the material she had received, Ms Sekaggya made a few preliminary recommendations before leaving the country. As a first step, she asked the central and state administrations to publicly acknowledge the importance and legitimacy of those who are working individually or in association with others to realise, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.

While acknowledging that India faces security challenges, Ms Sekaggya voiced deep concern over the arbitrary application of security laws, especially in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states, which affected the work of human rights defenders. She also objected to the branding and stigmatisation of human rights defenders who are labelled as Naxalites, Maoists, militants, anti-nationals etc. She noted that journalists who report rights violations are targeted by both security forces and insurgents.

Her observations must be seen in this context of the attempts to silence writers, journalists and others who have raised their voice against the wanton use of force by the state.

Ms Sekaggya called for training of security forces to sensitise them on the role and activities of human rights defenders “with technical advice and assistance from relevant UN entities, non-governmental organisations and other partners.”

It is not security personnel alone that need to be sensitised. Some recent pronouncements by members of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary indicate that there is inadequate appreciation of the role of civil society in all three limbs of the state.

The Constitution of India, which came into force in January 1950, incorporates most of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN 13 months earlier. To its eternal shame, during the Emergency of 1975-77, the Supreme Court upheld the Executive’s claim that it had the power to suspend all fundamental rights, including the right to life.

Recently an apex court bench formally repudiated that obnoxious judgment. But, then, another bench, recently reprimanded Teesta Setalvad, a human rights defender, for having written two letters to Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, viewing it as an attempt to seek foreign interference on a matter before the court.

One of the judges reportedly said, “We don’t appreciate letters being sent to a foreign country, we can’t approve of it.” If the report is correct, there is grave deficiency in the learned judge’s understanding of the role of the UN system in promoting human rights ideals worldwide.

The High Commissioner is mandated to promote and protect the enjoyment and full realisation, by all people, of all rights established in the UN Charter and in international human rights laws and treaties. It is a grave error to represent contact with a UN agency as contact with a foreign country.

Ms Sekaggya’s visit came even as some governments and political parties are making motivated attempts to discredit human rights defenders, whom they see as obstacle in the way of operations against terror groups. Implementation of her preliminary recommendations will help bolster India’s civil society.

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