Repeal laws seeking to criminalise human rights defenders, restrict civil society space in South Asia

southasiaforumAsian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) together with the Regional Initiative for a South Asian Human Rights Mechanism (RISAHRM) arranged a dialogue on ‘“Regional Human Rights Mechanism in South Asia” in Kathmandu, Nepal on 6 and 7 April 2017. A note on the dialogue, attended by key civil society experts from South Asia:

Subodh Raj Pyakurel (Chairperson, Informal Sector Service Centre – INSEC, Nepal) began the event by welcoming all the participants. He raised the issue of backlash on democracy and its values in most South Asian countries. “Impact of neo-liberalism is getting stronger and social justice is being challenged”, he said. “We share a common culture among all South Asian countries and that should be our strength and we need to reinvigorate this common culture for the benefit of each other.”

John Samuel (Executive Director, Forum-Asia) gave his opening remarks on the importance of a regional human rights mechanism, and why is it necessary nowadays more than ever. “South Asia is unique in its diversity and it has collective memory of the shared past of colonialism”, he said. He raised the importance of understanding politics of the region to understand the situation of human rights.

Adilur Rahman Khan (Secretary, Odhikar, Bangladesh) started by mentioning the importance of representation of members to make Forum-Asia stronger. “When the work of Forum-Asia is weak, it’s reflected in its members work and shows that members are struggling”, he said.

Session on Reflective Sharing on RISAHRM (Regional Initiative on South Asian Human Rights Mechanism): – History and Philosophy, Achievements to date, Future Direction:

RISAHRM Task Force members Hina Jilani, Subodh Raj Pyakurel and Minazur Rahman briefed the participants about the discussion held at the Task Force meeting on 5th April 2017.

Hina Jilani started by noting the importance of human rights initiatives that RISAHRM can take lessons from and how the movement can benefit from a cooperation with these mechanisms. “There are many common issues in the region that also go beyond borders which require cooperation across borders and states. While we maintain work at the national level, we need to go beyond that. Human rights must go beyond international instruments holding the states accountable but should be also the responsibility of individuals”, she said. “This is why a regional mechanism is very important.” She manifested her support for the idea of a South Asian institution. “However, I do not want to see the creation of something for the sake of having a mechanism. It has to be functional and people must be convinced of the idea and use of this instrument”, she noted.

Minazur Rahman explained the phenomena of human rights protection of individuals at the cost of state sovereignty. Regional approaches took place after the international covenant was established in the 1960s in Europe, America and Africa, but one region was missing, Asia. He commented that “this is because of the diversity of Asia. This left the sub-regional actors to come up with their own mechanism like ASEAN and SAARC. ASEAN Human Rights Mechanisms are still comparatively weak compared to international mechanisms. Issues such as the lack of political will to comply with human rights, corruption, poor rule of law, unacceptable discrimination of various groups and religious fundamentalism in the region, are the reasons why South Asia needs a regional human rights mechanism. The Task Force of RISAHRM represents all eight countries of SAARC. In all countries, national workshops have been held since the Task Force was established. He concluded by mentioning that the challenge is how to be an active and effective mechanism and what our role should be moving ahead.”

Session on Mapping of Current Human Rights Challenges in the Region:

This session discussed the current human rights challenges faced in South Asia. Lenin Raghuvanshi (People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights – PVCHR, India) moderated the session and the panelists included: Shahzad Ahmad (Country Director, Bytes for All Pakistan), Mathew Jacob (Director Programmes, People’s Watch, India), Dr Suresh Dhakal (Chair, Community Self-Reliance Centre – CSRC, Nepal), Kirity Roy (Executive Director, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha – MASUM, India), Sandun Thadugala (Law and Society Trust – LST, Sri Lanka) and Md. Shahid (Madaripur Legal Aid Association, Bangladesh).

Lenin Raghuvanshi began the session by narrating a story about an event on human rights abuses in Balochistan held in India. “I asked people there why we are not talking about atrocities against Dalits in India but only about abuses in Balochistan. This shows the hypocrisy of people”, he commented.

Mathew Jacob noted that the problem in South Asia is not only shrinking of civic space because it is not a new phenomenon, but the urgent concern is shrinking of democratic space. In India, there is a crackdown on any kind of dissent. Educational institutes like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences are losing their right to speak against the government; students are being charged with dissent and labeled as “anti-nationals”. He also observed that Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath are in power because they speak the language which masses of the country relate to and to stop them the mindset of the people have to be changed. He also mentioned that to build a regional mechanism, people need to come together, public meetings have to be organised, governments have to be pressurized, and other organisations have to be involved in the process.

Dr. Suresh Dhakal pointed out the two big issues in Nepal, which are cultural/social rights of the people and post-conflict survivors who don’t enjoy fundamental human rights. People don’t think social and cultural rights are important, which is very problematic. “RISAHRM is still at a conceptual stage but we need to take concrete steps and move forward.”

Kirity Roy raised the important issue of targeting of human rights defenders if they question the government. False cases are registered against them and they’re labeled as traitors. “Religious fundamentalism is a threat to ethos of democracy”, he exclaimed. He pointed out the importance of a regional mechanism and significance of accountability of RISAHRM.

Md. Shahid protested against the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Bangladesh. “Voting rights and the system of voting is rotten. Law enforcement and access to justice has been influenced by the government, which results in impunity”, he said. He also mentioned that there are certain issues which can’t be raised in Bangladesh anymore.

Shahzad Ahmad mentioned that the most marginalised people in Pakistan are religious minorities, sexual minorities and activists. “Cyber space used to be a safe and open space, but now it is highly controlled by the Government”, he exclaimed. Culture of impunity for the powerful is another huge issue in South Asia. He also pointed out the negative role of mainstream media which is usually manipulated by the state.

Sandun Thadugala mentioned how civil society space in Sri Lanka is increasing and more organisations have started working. He argued how the government speaks about protection and promotion of human rights, but the situation in the country remains the same.

Opening Session – Contextualisation of the Dialogue

This session was moderated by John Samuel (Executive Director, FORUM-ASIA) and panelists included Anup Raj Sharma (Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission, Nepal and former Chief Justice, Supreme Court), Subodh Raj Pyakurel (Chairperson, INSEC), Professor Yubaraj Sangroula (Kathmandu School of Law and former Attorney General) and Kanak Mani Dixit (Founding Editor, Himal South Asian).

John Samuel recapitulated the discussion from the previous day. He welcomed all the new participants to the event and introduced key-note speakers. “States abusing their power to silence activists shows their insecurity.”

Anup Raj Sharma talked about the common history South Asia shares and how most of the countries in the region are still emerging democracies. He talked about the importance of including Burma/Myanmar to the discussion as well. He examined the need of another mechanism when SAARC and ASEAN exist in Asia.

Subodh Raj Pyakurel narrated the story behind formation of Forum-Asia. In 1988, a need to address key human rights challenges in the region was felt and few human rights defenders came along to establish Forum-Asia. He questioned governments which have signed human rights charters but in practice, they’re not followed. “Countries have adopted laws to ban human trafficking and illegal migration. Why can’t we do the same for humanitarian values”, he noted.

Professor Yubaraj Sangroula raised the question on how we’ve been talking about a mechanism like this, but no concrete steps have been taken so far. He advised that the discussion should be about strengthening the already existing SAARC, rather than making another mechanism.

Kanak Mani Dixit reiterated the importance of a robust regional human rights mechanism in South Asia. “We need to look beyond our nationalities and think as South Asians. If we start looking from the perspective of the people and not the state, human rights situation will improve”, he commented. He also narrated the story of suspension behind Himan South Asian, but they’re now moving to Colombo where it’ll be started to publish again.

Session on Reflective Sharing on Regional Initiatives for Human Rights and Development

Ruki Fernando (INFORM, Sri Lanka) chaired the session and panelists shared the initiatives they are part of from the standpoint of human rights promotion and development.

Gauri Pradhan (Coordinator, Least Developed Countries  or LDC Watch International, Belgium) mentioned the important work of SAARC in taking up initiatives concerning women and children on which several declarations and conventions have been signed. He also reiterated the call to review the Charter of SAARC to make it human-rights friendly.

Dr. Netra Timilsina (Coordinator, South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication – SAAPE) briefed participants of SAAPE’s work especially for the rights of farmers, women and workers to ensure their social protection. SAAPE has members in all eight SAARC countries. “It is important to discuss how can all of us come together to ensure a regional mechanism is created”, he said.

Minazur Rahman (RISAHRM and South Asians for Human Rights) responded to skepticism over establishing a new mechanism by arguing that a mechanism like this won’t imitate other initiatives but rather redress key human rights challenges in the region by taking concrete steps. “Human rights violations in the region are more or less the same. It is time to stop looking them as regional problems, and address them as a larger South Asian problem”, he commented.

Paul Diwakar (National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, India) raised questions on the caste based discrimination which is witnessed across South Asia, in all religions. “It is hard to question the caste-system because it questions family, religious and cultural values and not the state”, he observed. He briefed participants about the work Dalit Solidarity Network does around the world and the issues they’ve worked on.

Charan Prasai (Coordinator, Accountability Watch Committee) mentioned the importance of working with Parliamentarians and National Human Rights Commissions of all SAARC countries if RISAHRM has to be relevant. He also stated how torture rate has decreased in Nepal in the last few years, which is an achievement for human rights advocates and activists.

***

southasiaA declaration was adopted at the end of the event, with coherent recommendations for human rights defenders, SAARC governments and National Human Rights Institutions:

We, the members of Forum-Asia, representatives of regional human rights and development networks, human rights defenders including women human rights defenders, academicians and media professionals, participating in the “Regional Dialogue on ‘Regional Human Rights Mechanism in South Asia” in Kathmandu, Nepal from 6 to 7 April 2017 adopt this declaration:

  • Asserting our identity as defenders and promoters of human rights, and our indispensable role in the consolidation and promotion of democracy and the rule of law that is built on the foundation of universal human rights as elucidated in the International Bill of Human Rights and other human rights standards;
  • Standing in solidarity with all human rights defenders and civil society organizations facing persecutions and reprisals for their human rights defense;
  • Reaffirming our firm commitment to the realization of all human rights for all peoples, and ensuring justice for victims and survivors of human rights violations;
  • Expressing serious concern over ongoing humiliating and degrading treatment, surveillance, fabricated and false criminal charges, funding restrictions, cancellation of registration licenses, abductions, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, impunity, counter-terrorism, and all other forms of violence including gender and caste based violence, facing human rights defenders in varying degrees in South Asia by acts of States and vigilante groups;
  • Alarmed at shrinking space for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and its implications for civil society organizations and social justice movements;
  • Noting with grave concern that the governments, judiciary, and other state institutions are increasingly failing to provide protection and facilitate enabling environment and space for
    human rights defenders, civil society organizations and other social movements in the region;
  • Aware that it is extremely necessary to enhance people-to-people connectivity within and beyond borders, and collaboration to build a regional response to the increasing trend of
    extremism, illiberalism, intolerance, crony capitalism, patriarchy, and divisive policies and laws, and to reclaim our democratic rights space as civil society members and citizens;
  • Committed deeply to the establishment, and strengthening as relevant, of inclusive and gender responsive national and regional institutions and frameworks capable of rising to the
    challenges discussed above, and ensuring promotion and protection of all human rights at the regional level;

Call to Action:

  1. We call on SAARC Governments to:

(a) Repeal all repressive laws and legal provisions that criminalise and restrict the work of human rights defenders and restrict the space for civil society to operate freely;
(b) Investigate human rights abuses and violations, committed both by state and non-state actors, and hold those responsible accountable for their actions; and that the victims of violence have had access to redress and justice;
(c) Guarantee the right to freedom of movement, including the right to free travel regionally by relaxing visa regulations and other restrictive orders and policies;
(d) Support civil society efforts towards the establishment of a South Asia regional human rights mechanism, and take measures towards the establishment of such a mechanism.
(e) Establish and strengthen national human rights institutions in line with Paris Principles in respective countries.

  1. We call on National Human Rights Institutions to:

(a) Investigate human rights violations and abuses committed by both state and non-state actors, and instruct Governments to hold those responsible accountable and provide justice to the victims;
(b) Encourage governments to ensure that national laws and policies are in line with international human rights law, and to repeal laws and policies that are in conflict with international human rights law;
(c) Ensure that the nationals of foreign countries are not persecuted and wrongfully prosecuted, and that they enjoy basic human rights as guaranteed by international covenants.

  1. We call on human rights defenders and civil society actors to:

(a) Enhance mutual support, collaboration, cooperation and connectivity among human rights defenders, civil society organisations, community groups and progressive movements at local, national and regional level;
(b) Engage in human rights awareness and education at the community level to empower people with information and mobilize them for defense of human rights;
(c) Form SA People’s Human Rights Commission, national networks to addresses shrinking democratic spaces and engage it in human rights monitoring, reporting and other works, including drafting of South Asia People’s Charter of Human Rights;
(d) Invest in research to create evidence and knowledge base on which to base effective advocacy (to challenge extremism and to create pro-human rights policies), and to develop alternative discourse and strategies to promote the respect for human rights;
(e) Work with parliamentarians to make them aware of the importance of a regional human rights mechanism, and mobilize their support in its favour;
(f) Engage with media to discuss common human rights issues facing the region.

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