UN raises concerns about attacks on Human Rights Defenders

Reprisals continued unabated despite the Covid-19 pandemic


The United Nations is worried about the condition of human rights defenders, activists and dissenters across the world as instances of reprisals and intimidation have been reported even amidst a global pandemic. A recent report by the Secretary General titled Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights documented alleged reprisals in 45 countries, but that these represent only a fraction of the actual number of incidents committed, mainly by States but also by non-state actors.

The 45 countries linked to cases listed are: Algeria, Andorra, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, Colombia,  Comoros, Cuba, Djibouti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, India, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Laos People’s Democratic Republic, Libya, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Thailand, Turkey,  United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Viet Nam and Yemen.

“Given the vast change in the engagement with the UN this year due to the pandemic, we imagined the numbers would be going down, but that has unfortunately not been the case,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris, who presented the report and held a virtual discussion with member States recently. “On the contrary, I am worried this may even be a sign that cases have actually increased,” he added.

Digital Surveillance of activists

The report demonstrates the clear online dimension involving those who cooperate with the UN, showing the targeting does not just take place on UN premises. In the digital sphere, the cases range from activists and journalists being attacked on social media after speaking at a UN meeting, to being punished for submitting information to or communicating electronically with the UN.  Some of these communications to the UN were thought to be private, exposing the degree of surveillance and cracks in digital security that activists and journalists face.

The Secretary-General notes in the report that “With our work being increasingly carried out online as a result of Covid-19, we should ensure participation remains meaningful, effective, easily accessible, and free from intimidation or reprisals of any sort.”

Trends and key findings

The report details the many cases of activists suffering prolonged detention and prison sentences, including some particularly severe cases of ill-treatment and torture. Trends in the targeting of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, and those working on protecting their rights, including on sexual and reproductive health, seem to be particularly sharp.  Threats of rape, online smear campaigns, sexual assault in detention, and humiliating and degrading treatment have been reported. 

The report notes that between 2017 and 2019 there was an increase in allegations of reprisals publicly reported concerning women or those working on women’s human rights and gender-related issues.  At the same time, cases not publicly reported or kept anonymous due to protection or other concerns are predominantly women. 

How is India faring?

When it comes to India, the UN report focuses on the following cases:

  • The targeting of an NGO in Manipur under the guise of violation of the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA)

  • The vilification of Khurram Parvez and his NGO in Kashmir

Centre for Social Development (CSD), Manipur

In the Manipur matter, the report says, “Allegations of reprisals against the Centre for Social Development (CSD) in Manipur and its staff, including its secretary Mr. Nobokishore Urikhimbam, were included in the 2018 and 2019 reports of the Secretary-General on allegations of surveillance and freezing of their bank account for cooperation with the UN. On September 11, 2019, special procedures mandate holders (IND 18/2019) raised concern about the suspension of registration of CSD, and the surveillance, threats and attacks against its staff and their family members. It was reported to OHCHR that in October 2019 the CSD’s license under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 2010 (FCRA), which had been suspended, had been reinstated.”

It added, “Mandate holders drew particular attention to the July 4, 2019 attempted shooting of Mr. Urikhimbam’s daughter, which appeared to be linked to his work in defence of human rights and his engagement with the UN (IND 18/2019). On July 5, 2019, the family of the victim filed a complaint at the Singjamei Police Station and, two weeks later, a First Information Report (FIR) was registered by the police. Due to a fear of further reprisals, the mandate holders noted that Mr. Urikhimbam cancelled a trip to Geneva to represent CSD and United NGOs Mission Manipur in discussions on the margins of the July 2019 session of the Human Rights Committee, and also in September 2019 to attend the Human Rights Council. As of May 2020, it was reported to OHCHR that the alleged perpetrators of the attempted shooting of Mr. Urikhimbam’s daughter had not been identified.”

Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS)

The report says, “A July 2019 OHCHR report on Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir noted reprisals against Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), which regularly cooperates with the UN. This report stated that, hours after the release of OHCHR’s previous June 2018 report, content defaming JKCCS and its coordinator, Mr. Khurram Parvez, was spread on social media by a group that claimed to have ISIS affiliation, including death threats against Mr. Parvez and his family.”

The plight and constant persecution of Parvez and JKCSS has found mention in previous UN reports as well. This latest report adds, “It was reported to OHCHR that Mr. Parvez, who in the past has been subject to travel bans, arbitrary arrest and detention in relation to his cooperation with the UN, was informed in August 2019 that he was prohibited from traveling internationally because he was placed on an ‘Exit Fly List’. It was further reported that Mr. Parvez was called in for ‘routine verification’ by police in February 2020 and, as of May 2020, three ‘First Information Reports’ filed by police in 2016 before a court in Srinagar were still unresolved.”

GoI’s response

When the UN sought information in the above cases, here is what it found. The report says, “On July 31, 2020, the Government responded in detail to the note verbale sent in connection to the present report. Regarding the situation of CSD in Manipur, the Government stated that the FCRA has been enacted to regulate the acceptance and utilization of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality by individuals or associations or companies to ensure that funds are not used for purposes detrimental to India’s national interests. The FCRA registration of CSD was suspended as it has been assessed and found to be in violation of this Act. Regarding the preventive detention of Mr. Parvez, the Government stated that it has been drawn from the cases registered against him Under Section (U/S) 151, 107 Code of Criminal Procedures (CRPC) for his activities against the public order in the past few years. The Government noted that a person who is under investigation for a criminal case registered against him under law is required to cooperate with the investigating agencies, and should not try to leave the country till the investigations are completed.”

The entire report may be read here: 



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