South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), is writing to you to express our concerns on the disturbing situation of HRDs in South Asia.
The presence of a strong and vibrant civil society is undeniably a measure of the level of democracy in any state. Civil society actors have played a significant role in promoting participatory democracy, adherence to the rule of law and promotion and protection of human rights and it is civil society initiatives that have played a fundamental role in implementing the overall human rights frameworks. In situations of crisis it is HRDs that monitor, investigate and report violations that later grant for measures of accountability, and for eliminating impunity.
However, we are greatly concerned about the assault on democracy in every country of South Asia. HRDs, journalists, social activists and academics as well as conscientious citizens are confronting restrictions on freedoms of expression and association which is now threatening the very existence of the active civil society resulting in the shrinking of civic space in South Asia. They have suffered harm and faced grievous threats to their lives, liberties, security, independence and credibility.
We are concerned that the constitutional and legal frameworks in all our countries have been used against HRDs in attempts to deter the valuable work they contribute towards the promotion of human rights. National security laws, digital security laws, laws that regulate foreign contributions, etc. have all been used to quell dissent and curtail the rights of the citizens. These state imposed regulatory frameworks have infringed upon the autonomy and independence of civil society organisations.
All across the region the human rights community continues to be subjected to assassinations, disappearances, illegal arrest and detention and torture. Added to these are vilification campaigns and negative propaganda which has made it difficult for civil society to survive. Militarisation of civil activities have expanded in South Asia, overriding systems of democratic governance and weakening public institutions serving the masses.
Despite the adoption of national constitutions with strong guarantees for the protection of fundamental freedoms, and creation of independent human rights institutions in all South Asian countries, there are visible signs of reversal of the initial advancements. Many court cases have been filed to challenge state restrictions on civil society organisations or actions against HRDs to curb their freedom of expression or association.
Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) continue to play a strong role in defending the rights of the most marginalised and vulnerable communities, especially for the protection of social and economic rights. Great risks are faced by these women whose work challenges social structures or economic interests. They are especially targeted, essentially due to their gender, and many are subjected to sexual harassment. WHRDs are additionally targeted by various social and private actors such as religious groups and institutions, community or tribal elders, or even members of their own family. Further, women working in conflict situations have an added level of threat against them and are in further danger to their life.
We also express our concern on the rise in nationalism and religious extremism which has become a cause of serious human rights violations by state and non-state actors. Hate speech and fake news have been used to repress minorities and HRDs. They have been attacked, harassed and killed by these extremist forces for practicing and promoting freedoms guaranteed in the constitution.
Laws that were created to protect the fundamental freedoms have been used as an instrument of repression against civil society, especially at the behest of extremist forces. HRDs, lawyers, journalists, writers and many others have been in the frontline to defend individuals and communities against violence, persecution, discrimination, social exclusion and prosecution under laws related to security, sedition etc.
Protection of HRDs and other civil society actors is the duty of a democratic state. We reiterate that a vibrant and functioning civil society is not only a part of the democratic process, but their presence and activity in a State is in itself both an indicator of democratisation and a motor for its further development.
Therefore, we call upon your Excellency to ensure that your government and all in authority would recognise civil society in your country, including HRDs, not as enemies of the state but as partners of democracy. We call upon your government to eradicate the culture of impunity and ensure a safe and enabling environment for the functioning of a civil society so that the country can move towards a state in South Asia which is respectful of its constitutional freedoms, rights and justice.
On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights,
Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy
Dr. Roshmi Goswami
This letter has been sent to the State Leaders, Ministers of Justice and Chairpersons of National Human Rights Commissions of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka