October 21: The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday appealed to the Government of India to review the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act and its compliance with international human rights norms, and regretted that it was being “used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting”.
“Constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Even if the authorities find it uncomfortable, it should never be criminalised or outlawed,” Bachelet said.
The statement referred to over 1,500 arrests made in relation to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and for violating the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as well as those made in the Elgaar Parishad case that includes the most recent arrest of Catholic-priest Stan Swamy, and the closure of Amnesty International after its bank accounts were frozen due to alleged FCRA violations, The Hindu reported.
“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,” the statement added.
The UN Human Rights Committee oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which India is a party. The ICCPR provides for the freedom to form associations and receive funds for these associations. At the heart of the UNHCHR’s criticism on Tuesday of the FCRA is that its “vaguely worded and overbroad” provisions curtail these freedoms.
A detailed note prepared by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Maina Kiai, accompanied the High Commissioner’s statement. The note says that FCRA violates India’s obligations under ICCPR as its vaguely defined grounds tantamount to a total ban on foreign funding for NGOs and Civil Society Organisations (CSO). It explains that while ICCPR allows restrictions of freedom to association, the “State party must prove the precise nature of the threat”.
Further, under the ICCPR, restrictions can be imposed on grounds of protecting national security or public order, but these concerns are seen to be legitimate only when NGOs support terrorist activities or call for violence or the complete rejection of democratic principles.