New Delhi: The UN high commissioner for human rights Michele Bachelet has expressed concern that the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) was “being used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy” that was critical of the government.
Appealing to the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs and their ability to work on behalf of the groups they represent, Bachelet said that laws were attempting to constrain NGOs’ activities and restrict foreign funding.
Maintaining that India had “a strong civil society” which had been “at the forefront of groundbreaking human rights advocacy”, the high commissioner expressed concern over “vaguely defined laws” which were being used to stifle voices.
“The FCRA has been invoked over the years to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts, to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organizations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies,” Bachelet said.
“I am concerned that such actions based on the grounds of vaguely defined ‘public interest’ leave this law open to abuse,” the high commissioner said and added that constructive criticism was the “lifeblood of democracy” and must never be criminalised or outlawed.
The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), adopted in 2010, regulates the acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution by individuals, associations and companies. Its amendment by the Union government last month prompted criticism from NGOs and activists who claimed that the move would affect the livelihoods of workers associated with small NGOs and impact the entire voluntary sector as organisations receiving foreign funds would no longer be able to transfer them to NGOs working at the grassroots level.
The office of the high commissioner for human rights also noted that activists and human rights defenders had been subjected to pressure in recent months owing to their participation in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act last year and that more than many persons had been arrested and charged under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. It also noted that charges under this law have been used against a number of individuals, including 83-year-old priest and activist Stan Swamy, in connection with events that date back to 2018.
The UN Human Rights Committee – which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India is a party – has said that when a state invokes national security and protection of public order as a reason to restrict rights, the state must show the specific nature of the threat or risks posed, and limit its responses to those necessary and proportionate to address such threat or risks.
“I urge the Government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society,” the high commissioner said.
“I also urge the authorities to carefully review the FCRA for its compliance with international human rights standards and to release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect,” Bachelet said.
Referring to a recent ruling by the Supreme Court which held that NGOs cannot be deprived of the right to receive foreign contributions for supporting public causes, the high commissioner said, “I encourage India’s national institutions to strengthen the social and legal protections that enable civil society to function freely and contribute to progress.”
Bachelet also said that the UN Human Rights Office would continue to engage closely with the Indian government on issues relating to the protection of human rights and would continue to monitor developments that affect civic space and fundamental rights and freedoms in the country.
Last year the UN high commissioner for human rights expressed concern over the the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, calling it “fundamentally discriminatory”. In March this year, the high commissioner moved to file an intervention application in the Supreme Court against the Act.
Responding to Bachelet’s statement, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, “We have seen some comments by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on an issue relating to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). India is a democratic polity based on the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The framing of laws is obviously a sovereign prerogative. Violations of law, however, cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights. A more informed view of the matter was expected of a UN body.”