The Ministry of External Affairs on Tuesday responded to the concerns expressed by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about the amendments made to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, and said that violations of the law “cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights”. Foreign ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said he expected a more nuanced view on the matter from a UN body.
The UN Human Rights Committee oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which India is a party.
“We have seen some comments by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on an issue relating to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act,” Srivastava said in a statement. “India is a democratic polity based on the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The framing of laws is obviously a sovereign prerogative. Violations of law, however, cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights. A more informed view of the matter was expected of a UN body.”
Bachelet on Tuesday said she was worried that the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, or FCRA, was being used to deter or punish human rights organisations that are critical of the government. She further noted the action against Amnesty International India last month.
On September 29, Amnesty International India announced that it had been “compelled to let go of staff in India” and stop all its work as its bank accounts have been frozen. The organisation called the government’s move to freeze its bank accounts a witch-hunt “over unfounded and motivated allegations”.
Bachelet on Tuesday said that such actions based on “vaguely defined ‘public interest’ leave this law open to abuse”, adding that it was being used against organisations that “authorities perceive as critical in nature”. She also said that even if authorities found “constructive criticism uncomfortable, it should never be criminalised or outlawed in this way”.
“The FCRA has been invoked over the years to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts, to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organisations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies,” Bachelet had said. She had appealed to the Narendra Modi government to safeguard the rights of human rights activists and NGOs and their ability to work on behalf of the groups they represent.
The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, adopted in 2010, lays down conditions under which civil society organisations can receive funds from abroad. Under the Act, certain persons are prohibited from accepting any foreign contribution.
In its amendment by the Centre last month, the government asked all key functionaries to furnish their Aadhaar cards for registration, and reduced the limit of usable foreign contribution for administrative expenses from 50% to 20%. It also prevented the transfer of foreign funding to any other person, and empowered the cancellation of an FCRA certificate for another 180 days beyond the 180 days already allowed.
The amendments prompted widespread criticism from NGOs and activists who said the law was a “death blow to civil society”, affecting the livelihoods of those working with smaller organisations. Critics also fear the move would cripple the entire voluntary sector as organisations receiving foreign funds would no longer be able to transfer them to NGOs working at the grassroots level.