The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, on Friday advised India to keep politics with Pakistan on the Jammu and Kashmir situation aside and instead take up issues “about the people” and begin the “healing process” as they “have been suffering for many years.”
She felt that the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Public Safety Act, which were arbitrarily applied at the national and State levels in J&K and in the Northeast India, should be repealed and application of other security laws which “adversely affect the work and safety of human rights defenders should be reviewed.” Acknowledging the security challenges faced by the country, Ms. Sekaggya said that at the same time “people and their basic rights are also important.”
Quoting reports about the rampant violation of human rights in J&K, Ms. Sekaggaya referred to an instance where a prisoner in the Valley had been kept “naked” in solitary confinement for seven years.
The U.N Rapporteur, a lawyer and the former Judge of the High Court in Uganda, toured Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, Guwahati, Ahmedabad, Jammu, Srinagar, and Delhi for 10-days, though she had asked the Indian government permission for two-three week tour.
In her preliminary report, released to the journalists here, she said: “I am troubled by the branding and stigmatisation of rights defenders, who are labelled as Maoists, terrorists, militants, insurgents, anti-nationalists, members of the underground.” Defenders on the ground, including journalists, who report on violations by the State and non-State actors in areas affected by insurgency were targeted by both sides, she said.
Freedom of movement of defenders are restricted under these security laws; for instance, applications of passport or renewal have been denied, and access for defenders to victims in some areas.
According to sources, this was the first time a Special Rapporteur has been given permission by the Centre to study the human rights situation in the country, though the U.N. office had been seeking permission since 2001.
On the arrest and conviction of rights activist Binayak Sen, for taking up the issues of Maoists, she said the U.N. body had been monitoring the progress of the proceedings. She said Mr. Sen's wife had met her during the visit and explained the her husband's plight.
Ms. Sekaggya observed that there were deficiencies in the administrative and judicial setup that needed to be addressed. The human rights Commissions in the country must “do more” and “increase the visibility” in condemning rights abuse, while the judiciary must use its suo motu powers to take cognisance of abuses. India faced numerous security challenges, but these should not constrain the “space of civil society,” she said.