New Delhi: India has been a repeat offender when it comes to reprisals against human rights defenders for cooperating with the United Nations, having featured at least five times in the last nine years in annual reports by the UN Secretary-General.
This year, India joined 38 countries that have featured in a list of countries accused by Secretary-General António Guterres for having conducted “intimidation and reprisals” against those who have cooperated or are seeking to cooperate with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.
Guterres said reprisals and punishment of individuals for cooperating with the United Nations “is a shameful practice that everyone must do more to stamp out.”
This is the ninth report released by the UNSG’s office since the passage of a resolution in 2010.
India has figured in five out of the nine reports, with the latest one having three new cases and also follows-up on previously mentioned cases.
The new cases largely relate to suspension of licenses of non-governmental organisations for foreign donations – a concern which had also been raised by special rapporteurs repeatedly.
The Centre for Promotion of Social Concern (CPSC), also known as People’s Watch, has been under the watch of the Indian home ministry since 2016. Recently, The Times of India reported that People’s Watch is among five NGOs whose cases have been referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The licence of People’s Watch was revoked in October 2016 under article 7 of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act 2010, which prohibits transfer of foreign contribution to another person without approval. With its bank accounts frozen, the NGO went to court but the Delhi high court upheld the government’s refusal to renew its license in January 2017.
The UNSG’s report noted that the executive director of the People’s Watch, Henri Tiphagne, had submitted information to UN special rapporteurs and also made recommendations during India’s universal periodic review. It added that Tiphagne was accused of using foreign contributions for international advocacy “to the detriment of India’s image,” and his engagement with UN special rapporteurs was described as “portraying India’s human rights record in negative light.”
“The special procedures mandate holders noted that the non-renewal of the CPSC’s license is a clear case of reprisal for his cooperation with the United Nations.”
UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Andrew Gilmour on June 7 asked for a response from the Indian government on several cases of intimidation and reprisals.
Less than a month later, the Indian government replied that the FCRA act “prohibits acceptance and utilization of foreign contribution for activities detrimental to national interest.”
With regards to the People’s Watch case, the government just observed that the case was still sub-judice, with the last hearing scheduled for August 31.
Additionally, the government responded that the six-month license suspension of another NGO, Centre for Social Development, on January 1 this year was due to the necessity to “conform to the legal framework and the requirements under FCRA.”
The CSD’s suspension, as per the UN report, was apparently due to violating the FCRA provisions by using foreign contributions to draw attention to uranium mining in Meghalaya at “several global platforms.”
Two months before the suspension, the CSD had submitted a report to the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights and to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on uranium mining and cement factories in Meghalaya. The CSD has claimed to have filed nine reports to the UN since 2006 on “violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in northeast India in relation to large-scale development projects, mining operations, and implementation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.”
The NGO has alleged that they have been under surveillance of Indian authorities since August 2017. Their offices were allegedly visited by CRPF personnel, who questioned and “harassed” the staff.
The UN report states that a staff member of the CSD was “physically attacked” on August 18 last year. Then in November, one staff member and two volunteers “were called in for questioning by the police.”
CSD secretary Nobokishore Urikhimbam is quoted in the report as saying that he has been under surveillance of military intelligence officials both in Manipur and outside.
“When he travelled to Shillong, State of Meghalaya in January 2018, the Intelligence Department of Meghalaya contacted the hotel and interrogated its staff about his actions and contacts. The hotel staff was asked to provide detailed information on his activities, including a list of the people he interacted with,” it said. Urikhimbam also reportedly complained to the Manipur police, but “to no avail.”
The organisation had sought the action of the CERD under its early warning procedure.
While the ‘reprisals’ against CSD and the CPSC were related to the long-standing issue of foreign contributions, the third ‘new’ case was about reports of reprisals against Kartik Murukutla, a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS).
While departing for Geneva in September 2016, Muruktala was informed that there was a “look out circular” against him, which may have been taken as “a reprisal for his cooperation with United Nations human rights mechanisms in Geneva.” Murukutla’s case had been taken up by UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders Michel Forst in June 2017.
However, the UN report added that there was no update on the lookout circular. “It was reported in May 2018 that Mr. Murukutla was not subject to restrictions during his most recent travels, but he had not been informed about the status of the Look Out Circular nor its implications for his future travel.”
Cases against Khurram Parvez mentioned
Besides Muruktula, the JKCSS also featured in the list of ‘ongoing cases’ since the annual report had featured the program coordinator of the group, Khurram Parvez, in the 2017 edition.
Parvez’s harassment was apparently due to his cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council, Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and the universal periodic review.
Four cases had been filed against Parvez but were subsequently dropped after the J&K high court ruled that he had been detained arbitrarily in 2016.
The police have now filed three more cases against him in Srinagar.
The 2018 report states that Parvez had been a “source of information” for the report of office of the UN high commissioner on human rights on Kashmir released in June this year. The Indian government had dismissed the allegations cited in the report and pointed the finger at the personal “prejudice” of the previous UN human rights chief for the publication of the first UN report on the situation in Kashmir.
Incidentally, the annual report on reprisals also claimed that “defaming content” against Parvez and the JKCCS had been circulated by a group claiming affiliation to Islamic State. “The group has publicly incited death threats against Mr. Parvez and his family, and used slanderous language against the work of the JKCCS,” it said.
The Indian government responded that Parvez’s detention was “justified” as it was “well grounded according to the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (1978) based on his activities prejudicial to public order.”
Guterres in his report also pointed to a “disturbing trend in the use of national security instruments and counter-terrorism strategies by states as justification for blocking access by communities and civil society organizations to the United Nations.
“In the last year, a number of NGOs and human rights defenders, activists and experts have been labelled as ‘terrorists’ by their governments. Reported cases include individuals or organisations being officially charged with terrorism, blamed for cooperation with foreign entities, or accused of damaging the reputation or security of the state,” Guterres said.
As noted earlier, this is the second time that Parvez has featured in the UN Secretary-General’s report taking stock of actions taken by states to protect human rights defenders.
Parvez follows in the footsteps of activist Teesta Setalvad, whose name was mentioned twice in previous annual reports of 2014 and 2011.
In 2011, the Supreme Court had reprimanded Setalvad for sending copies of a letter complaining to the special investigation team on lack of protection against victims and witnesses of the Gulberg Society massacre to the office of the UN human rights commissioner.
That same year, the UN had also taken up the case of a district human rights monitor of an NGO in West Bengal, against which an arrest warrant had been issued regarding an incident near the Border Security Force outpost in 2008. Nine days after policemen visited Julfikar Ali’s house with the arrest warrant, he made a presentation to a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in West Bengal. “Following his engagement with the Special Rapporteur, it was reported that police visits to Mr. Ali’s family home became more frequent,” said the 2011 report.
The reports did not include a response from the Indian government on the cases of Setalvad and Ali, except an acknowledgement of receipt of the communication sent by the special rapporteurs.
India had also figured in the first report in 2010, after women’s rights activist Harshinindar Kaur claimed to have been verbally threatened by a “very senior government official of India” in Geneva after her statement in the Human Rights Council. The Indian government had told the UN that neither any government official had contacted Kaur in Geneva nor had the CBI visited her home in Punjab.