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India: “Space for civil society is being contracted,” warns UN expert on human rights defenders

NEW DELHI (21 January 2011) – The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, expressed her concern for a contraction of the space for civil society in India, despite the country’s “comprehensive and progressive legal framework as a guarantor of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as the existence of the National Human Rights Commission as well as a number of state and statutory commissions mandated to promote and protect human rights.”

“I am particularly concerned at the plight of human rights defenders working for the rights of marginalized people, i.e. Dalits, Adavasis (tribals), religious minorities and sexual minorities, who face particular risks and ostracism because of their activities,” Ms. Sekaggya said at the end of her first fact-finding mission to the country.

Ms. Sekaggya underscored the testimonies she received about human rights defenders and their families, who have been killed, tortured, ill-treated, disappeared, threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, falsely charged and under surveillance because of their legitimate work in upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In her view, the existing national and state human rights commissions should do much more to ensure a safe and conducive environment for human rights defenders throughout the country. To that end, she urged the Government to review the functioning of the National Human Rights Commission with a view to strengthening it.

The independent expert also noted “the arbitrary application of security laws at the national and state levels, most notably the Public Safety Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as these laws adversely affect the work of human rights defenders”. She urged the Government to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act as well as the Public Safety Act and review the application of other security laws which negatively impact on the situation of human rights defenders.

“I am deeply concerned about the branding and stigmatization of human rights defenders, labelled as ‘naxalites (Maoists)’, ‘terrorists’, ‘militants’, ‘insurgents’, or ‘anti-nationalists’,” Ms. Sekaggya said. Defenders, including journalists, who report on violations by State and non-State actors in areas affected by insurgency are being targeted by both sides.

“I urge the authorities to clearly instruct security forces to respect the work of human rights defenders, conduct prompt and impartial investigations on violations committed against human rights defenders and prosecute perpetrators”. The human rights expert further recommended that the Government “enact a law on the protection of human rights defenders in full and meaningful consultation with civil society.”

Ms. Sekaggya commended the Government for opening its doors to her mandate and for enabling her to visit five states, which assisted her in gaining a clear understanding of the local specificities in which human rights defenders work.

The Special Rapporteur will present her report to the United Nations Human Rights Council at a future session in 2012, and will make further recommendations for the consideration of the Government and other stakeholders.

Margaret Sekaggya, a lawyer from Uganda, was appointed Special Rapporteur in March 2008 by the UN Human Rights Council. She is independent from any Government and serves in her individual capacity.

(*) Read the full statement by the Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=10660&LangID=E

For more information about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/defenders/index.htm
See the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/defenders/declaration.htm
Check the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm

OHCHR Country Page – India: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/INIndex.aspx

For further information and media enquiries, please contact:
In Geneva: Ms. Dolores Infante-Canibano (Tel: + 41 22 917 9730 / Email: dinfante@ohchr.org).
In Delhi: Mr. Rajiv Chandran (Tel: 91-11-4653-2237/ mobile: 98106-06833 / Email: chandran@unicindia.org )