South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a democratic regional network, expresses grave concern over the recent spate of threats, intimidation and targeted persecution of human rights defenders in the region by state and other entities.

This statement is issued in the immediate aftermath of the arrest and subsequent granting of anticipatory bail of Indian human rights activists Teesta Setalvad and her spouse, Javed Anandand; and the arrest and continued detention of Pakistani activist and anti-poverty campaigner Zia-Ur-Rahman, CEO of Awaz Foundation.

The arrest of Teesta is based upon allegations of embezzlement of funds intended for a museum at the Gulbarg Society conceived as a memorial for the victims of 2002 Gujarat riots, whilst Zia-Ur-Rahman was arrested upon false contentions that a civic rights education project was an anti-state activity despite prior notification to relevant government departments.

The above two cases are emblematic of systematic persecutions human rights defenders face across South Asia. They are victims of, physical attacks and threats, arbitrary arrest and detention, harassment by filing criminal cases against them and intimidation and even killings including enforced disappearances in an effort to silence their voices.

Women defenders are subjected to additional forms of prejudice, discrimination and other violations including acts of violence as they are seen to challenge so called traditional norms and stereotypes regarding the role of women, femininity and family. Women HRDs face an additional threat when defending the rights of women or during any human rights related work, by non-state forces which include community leaders, faith-based groups, communities and even their own families. Women defenders who work among conflict affected communities are themselves victims of gender based violence that is perpetuated as part of the conflict. Women defenders who face such violence often have no remedies due to the inadequacy of laws which address violence against women.

SAHR among others highlights the following instances of harassment of and restrictions upon HRDs in 2014: the attempted abduction of Nur Khan, director of Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) in Bangladesh; ongoing arrests of peaceful protestors in Burma under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (Peaceful Assembly Law) 2011; the re-arrest of Irom Sharmila in India under the same charge of attempted suicide; attacks on Indian activists seeking information under the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005, including the killing of RTI activist Sri Krupasindhu Sahu in 2015; use of national security legislation by the Pakistan authorities to prosecute and harass Multan-based human rights activist Zia-Ur-Rahman for conducting activities on voter education; the Maldives Supreme Court’s suo moto case against Members of the Human Rights Commission after submission to the UN of a critical Universal Period Review (UPR) report; the arrest and detention of renowned Sri Lankan human rights defenders Ruki Fernando and Fr. Praveen Mahesan under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) whilst they were seeking to ensure the wellbeing of another arrested woman HRD, Balendran Jeyakumari.

The South Asian States are party to numerous international human rights treaties and also have obligations under universally recognized human rights standards. In particular, states have an obligation to protect the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders under the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society.

However, although member states have an obligation to ensure that these provisions are entrenched in domestic legislation, implementation remains deplorable with a growing culture of impunity for attacks on human rights defenders and a rapidly shrinking space for activism on human rights.

SAHR calls upon the governments of South Asia to end the culture of impunity for the persecution of human rights defenders; amend domestic laws in conformity with the UN Declaration on the subject and other international human rights standards which afford rights and protection to human rights defenders; set up a dedicated complaints mechanism for HRDs and monitor the implementation of related laws through an independent body such as a human rights commission; provide trainings to relevant state actors, the judiciary and state media on the UN Declaration and the rights of HRDs; and value the work and contribution of human rights defenders across the sub-region.

SAHR is a regional organization with a large membership base consisting of eminent and like-minded human rights activists, practitioners, experts and institutions committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels in the SAARC.

Hina Jilani – Chairperson
Dr. Nimalka Fernando – Co-Chairperson

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