Three UN human rights experts have called on the government of India to repeal the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), saying the Act is increasingly being used to obstruct civil society’s access to foreign funding, and fails to comply with international human rights norms and standards. This comes in the wake of the home ministry suspending for six months the FCRA registration of NGO Lawyers Collective for allegedly violating provisions of the Act. The UN experts also demanded the reversal of the suspension.
“We are alarmed that FCRA provisions are being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the government,” said the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders Michel Forst, special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye and special rapporteur on freedom of association Maina Kiai.
In their statement, the special rapporteurs have stated that they were “alarmed by reports that the suspension was politically motivated and was aimed at intimidating, delegitimising and silencing Lawyers Collective for their litigation and criticism of the Government’s policies.” They further noted that the NGO was known for its public interest litigation and advocacy in defence of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of Indian society.
The statement made a mention of how the suspension of Lawyers Collective was imposed on the basis of allegations that its founders, human rights lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, violated the Act’s provisions by using foreign funding for purposes other than those intended.
However, they argued, the real reasons for the suspension appear to be different. “It was claimed that the founders of Lawyers Collective were targeted partly due to their legal assistance to human rights defender Teesta Setalvad in a separate FCRA suspension, ordered in September 2015 against Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace, both headed by Ms. Setalvad. The Government also suspended the registration of Greenpeace India under the FCRA for six months earlier in April 2015. These concerns were previously communicated by the UN experts to the Government,” the statement said.
Incidentally, in April, Kiai had published a legal analysis arguing that India’s FCRA – which regulates foreign funding to certain individuals, associations and companies – is not in conformity with international law, principles and standards. This analysis was later submitted to the Indian government on April 20, 2016.
The three experts, who are are a part of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council (the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system), added that they were “also concerned about procedural irregularities surrounding the order, including repeatedly leaked information to the press of suspension notices against the Lawyers Collective months before those were formally served to the NGO.”
They went on to state that “human rights defenders and civil society must have the ability to do their important job without being subjected to increased limitations on their access to foreign funding and the undue suspension of their registration on the basis of burdensome administrative requirements imposed to those organizations in receipt of foreign funds.”
Clearly standing on the side of Lawyers Collective, the special rapporteurs said, “despite detailed evidence provided by the NGO to rebut all allegations and prove that all foreign contributions were spent and accounted for in line with FCRA, the suspension was still applied.”
The UN experts further highlighted the “outstanding national and international profile as human rights lawyers” of Jaising, a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and Grover, who was the UN special rapporteur on the right to health from 2008 to 2014.
Taking into account the facts of the case and the arguments, the experts have strongly urged the government to “reverse its decision and embrace the invaluable contribution of the two prominent human rights defenders in upholding constitutional values in India”.
“We encourage the authorities to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society, which play a critical role in holding the Government to account and buttressing the Indian democracy,” they added.
The report by the UN also mentioned how “many civil society organizations in India now depend on FCRA accreditation to receive foreign funding, which is critical to their operations assisting millions of Indians in pursuing their political, cultural, economic and social rights. The ability to access foreign funding is vital to human rights work and is an integral part of the right to freedom of association.”
However, it said, FCRA’s vague terms such as “political nature”, “economic interest of the state” or “public interest” are overly broad, do not conform to a prescribed aim and are not a proportionate responses to the purported goal of the restriction.
Moves against Lawyers Collective had also irked a large number of civil rights groups in India, who have condemned government action against the NGO.
Lawyers Collective has consistently denied the charges levelled against it and claimed that all the foreign contributions received “were spent for the purposes received and accounted for”. It has termed the notice of suspension and its release to the media acts of “vindictiveness” by the government.