I continue to receive alarming and regular news about Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in India.The 79 year-old jailed Human Rights Defender Varavara Rao appears to have serious health concerns. He’s held in the overcrowded Taloja Prison in Mumbai.
We know that HRDs are at great risk in prisons, which are breeding grounds for the virus. His health is frail, and like all HRDs in jail he should be immeditaley released.
Since I took up this mandate two months ago I’ve been talking online to Human Rights Defenders most days from all over the world, including from India, and have heard how they are being targeted in old and new ways.
The targeting of Human Rights Defenders in India didn’t start with Covid, or with the protests against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), and there is a history and context to attacks on Indian HRDs.
For many years HRDs in India have faced harassment from state and non-state actors, including killing, physical assault, arbitrary detention, threats and judicial harassment. Police officials have often been the perpetrators of violence against HRDs, which is usually carried out with impunity.
So the recent attacks come as part of a longer, violent, tradition of targeting HRDs in India. Women HRDs have long been targeted with gender-specific threats – death, gang rape or acid attacks – both online and offline.
People defending the rights of marginalised communities such as the Adivasi and the Dalit have encountered death threats, the destruction of their properties, fabricated charges, physical attacks, and caste-based discrimination by state and non-state actors alike.
So sadly it’s no great shock that the Indian government is failing to abide by it international commitments to protect HRDs when it already has such a long history of failure.
In my first week as Special Rapporteur in May of this year I joined with other independent UN experts in a communication to the government of India as I was concerned about how counter terrorism legislation was being used to target HRDs, including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act and the 1967 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
We’ve seen how for months, since the CAA came into law last December, HRDs all over the country have been targeted for peacefully protesting against it.
Last month I joined with other independent UN experts calling for the immediate release of human rights defenders arrested for protesting against changes to the nation’s citizenship laws.
The defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA, and their arrests seemed clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies would not be tolerated.
One of the cases we highlighted was of pregnant Delhi student Safoora Zargar, who was detained for over two months having allegedly been kept in conditions equating to solitary confinement, denied regular contact with her family and legal representative, and having not been provided adequate medical care or diet.
She was finally granted bail on 23 June 2020, in her sixth month of pregnancy, on humanitarian grounds.
Rather than addressing the issues being raised by the protestors, the government has resorted to shutting down dissent by restricting internet access, imposing curfews and detaining hundreds of peaceful protestors and human rights defenders.
The police, while failing to exercise their duty to protect the people, have been using excessive force against those trying to defend the rights of others.
India is on the Human Rights Council, but clearly its actions are in violation of its obligations to uphold human rights standards. We will continue to raise these issues as Special Rapporteurs and other independent experts.
I hope I can establish a full and frank dialogue with the government of India during the course of my mandate. I encourage states to urge the government of India to stop its attacks on HRDs, and I also encourage businesses who have interests in India to play their part in defending HRDS.