UN official concerned over plight of rights defenders

New Delhi, Jan 22 (IANS) UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Margaret Sekaggya Friday said security laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which affect the safety and work of human rights defenders, should be repealed.

Addressing a press meet in the capital, Sekaggya said: 'While I acknowledge the security challenges India faces, I am deeply concerned about the arbitrary application of security laws at the national and state levels in Jammu and Kashmir and in the north-east of India, most notably the Public Safety Act and the AFSPA, the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which directly affect the work of human rights defenders'.

'I am troubled by the branding and stigmatisation of human rights defenders, who are labelled as 'naxalites (Maoists)', 'terrorists', 'militants', 'insurgents'. Defenders on the ground, including journalists, who report on violations by state and non-state actors in areas affected by insurgency are targeted by both sides,' she added.

Sekaggya has been on a fact-finding mission in India Jan 10-21 to assess the situation of human rights defenders. She travelled to Bhubaneshwar in Orissa, Kolkata in West Bengal, Guwahati in Assam, Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Jammu and Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir and across Delhi for the same.

Besides meeting lawyers, human rights activists, police officials and members of the diplomatic community, she also met the foreign secretary, the union home secretary and the joint secretary in the home affairs ministry among others.

Sekaggya, however, regretted not meeting the prime minister.

In her recommendations to the government, Sekaggya said that the security forces should be instructed and sensitised to respect the work of the human rights defenders. She also said that the draft Bill on Prevention Against Torture should be adopted 'without further delay'.

'The state and national human rights commission should set up a 24-hour toll free helpline number for human rights defenders,' she suggested.

Sekaggya said that she will submit her full report with conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council by March 2012.

UN special rapporteurs are individuals working on behalf of the UN within the scope of 'special procedures' mechanisms who bear a specific mandate from the Commission of Human Rights (UNCHR) and assumed by the Human Rights Council.