Human Rights Violations And Culture Of Impunity In South Asia

As countries across South Asia continue to battle the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, causing serious public health and economic crisis, this region, which is home to almost 2 billion people, is also grappling with the erosion of democratic norms, growing authoritarianism, the crackdown on freedom of press, speech and dissent.

Despite the committed efforts of human rights defenders across South Asia, achieving human rights objectives remains a challenging task. Almost all countries in the region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – face a common trend of human rights violations and a culture of impunity.

Afghanistan 

In Afghanistan, the Taliban rule has had a devastating impact on the lives of Afghan women, girls, journalists and human rights defenders. “The crisis for women and girls in Afghanistan is escalating with no end in sight. Taliban policies have rapidly turned many women and girls into virtual prisoners in their homes, depriving the country of one of its most precious resources, the skills and talents of the female half of the populations,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch in this report.

This report states, “the Taliban’s return to power has made members of some ethnic and religious minorities feel more vulnerable to threats even from those not affiliated with the Taliban. Taliban authorities have also used intimidation to extract money, food, and services. Fighting has mostly ended in the country, but people expressed fear of violence and arbitrary arrests by the Taliban and lack of the rule of law and reported increased crime in some areas.”

A group of three dozen Human Rights Council appointed experts in this report said, “waves of measures such as barring women from returning to their jobs, requiring a male relative to accompany them in public spaces, prohibiting women from using public transport on their own, as well as imposing a strict dress code on women and girls. Taken together, these policies constitute a collective punishment of women and girls, grounded in gender-based bias and harmful practices.”

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has urged the UN security council to hold all perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, “I ask the security council to ensure that the perpetrators of these violations are accountable, I ask all states to use their influence with the Taliban to encourage respect for fundamental human rights. Denial of the fundamental rights of women and girls is massively damaging to the economy and the country as a whole,” Bachelet said.

The Taliban victory propelled Afghanistan “from humanitarian crisis to catastrophe”, with millions of Afghans facing severe food insecurity due to lost income, cash shortages, and rising food costs. Afghan refugees constitute one of the world’s largest refugees population, with more than 2.2 million refugees. “Afghanistan’s displacement crisis is one of the largest and most protracted in UNHCR’s seven-decade history,” says UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Bangladesh

While Bangladesh, despite making economic progress and getting upgraded by the United Nations from the category of least developed country to developing country last November, the country continues to be in the news for enforced disappearances, abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings by its security forces with impunity.

In this letter written by 12 organizations to Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix, urging the United Nations Department of Peace Operations to ban Bangladesh’s notoriously abusive paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from UN deployment.

As many as 600 people, including opposition leaders, activists, journalists, business people, and others, have been subjected to enforced disappearance since 2009. In this report, Dhaka–based rights organization Odhikar said that “some of the disappeared persons resurfaced in government’s custody after being arrested under the draconian Digital Security Act 2018.”

“Human rights defenders, journalists, and others critical of the government continue to be targeted with surveillance, politically motivated charges and arbitrary detention,” says this report. Earlier in November 2021, the United States slapped sanctions on elite Bangladeshi paramilitary force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), stating it threatens US national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the economic prosperity of the people of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the only South Asian country other than Afghanistan to receive US sanctions since 1998.

India

In 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in India was downgraded from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy” by global political rights and liberties US-based nonprofit Freedom House. Following this, a Sweden based V-Dem institute said, India had become an “electoral autocracy”. The country has slid from No. 35 in 2006 to No. 53 today on The Economist’s list.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended India be designated as a “country of particular concern, or CPC, for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act in its report.

In its World Report 2022, Human Rights Watch said, “Indian authorities intensified their crackdown on activists, journalists, and other critics of the government using politically motivated prosecutions in 2021. “Attacks against religious minorities were carried out with impunity under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Hindu nationalist government.”

Indian authorities have continued to press charges against students, activities, journalists, including counter-terrorism and sedition laws. To undermine rights to privacy and freedom of expression, reports of Pegasus spyware, developed and sold by Israeli company NSO group, were used to target Indian human rights defenders, journalists, and opposition politicians.

The ongoing harassment of journalists, including particularly those reporting from and in Kashmir, including the recent crackdown on Kashmir’s independent press club being shut down, arbitrary detention of journalists, alleged custodial killings, and a broader pattern of systematic infringement of fundamental rights used against the local population,” the report said.

According to this report, calls for genocide have become more common than ever, “where Hindu extremists organized 12 events over 24 months in four states, calling for genocide of Muslims, attacks on Christian minority and insurrection against the government. In this interview, the founding president of Genocide Watch, has warned: “Genocide could very well happen in India.”  

Nepal

In Nepal, lack of effective government leadership, inadequate and unequal access to health care, and a ‘pervasive culture of impunity’ continue to undermine the country’s fundamental human rights. “A lack of effective government leadership in Nepal means that little is done to uphold citizens’ rights, leaving millions to fend for themselves without adequate services such as for health or education, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch.

“Systemic impunity for human rights abuses extends to ongoing violations, undermining the principles of accountability and the rule of law in post-conflict Nepal. The report states that the authorities routinely fail to investigate or prosecute killings or torture allegedly carried by security forces,” the report states.

In October 2020, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) published 20 years of data, naming 286 people, mostly police officials, military personnel, and former Maoist insurgents, “as suspects in serious crimes, including torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings”.

Along with this, the situation of women’s and girls’ human rights continues to be alarming in the country. According to this report, Nepal has the highest rate of child marriages in Asia, with 33 percent of girls marrying before 18 years and 8 percent by 15. Reports also indicate there has been an increase in cases of rape in 2021, with widespread impunity for sexual violence.

Patriarchal Citizenship Law in Nepal which does not treat men and women equally, has been criticized for undermining Nepali women’s identities and agency, subordinating them to the position of second-class citizens – also impacting children.

Pakistan

The Pakistan government, on the other hand, “harassed and at times persecuted human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists for criticizing government officials and policies,” said this report by Human Rights Watch. Significant human rights issues include freedom of expression, attacks on civil society groups, freedom of religion and belief, forced disappearances by governments and their agents, unlawful or arbitrary killings, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, terrorism, counter-terrorism and law enforcement abuses.

“Pakistan failed to enact a law criminalizing torture despite Pakistan’s obligation to do so under the Convention against Torture,” the report said.  The country’s regressive blasphemy law provides a pretext for violence against religious minorities, leaving them vulnerable to arbitrary arrests and prosecution.

According to this report by Human Rights Without Frontiers, 1,865 people have been charged with blasphemy laws, with a significant spike in 2020, when 200 cases were registered.

This piece highlights the plight of thousands of Pakistan’s Baloch who security forces have abducted. International human rights law strictly prohibits enforced disappearances, in Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed that a draft law to criminalize enforced disappearances would be “fast-tracked”. A bill about enforced disappearances, which the National Assembly passed, mysteriously went missing after it was sent to the Senate.

The continued attack on journalists and activists for violations of the Electronic Crimes Act, the use of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption agency to target critics, attacks and well-coordinated campaigns and attacks on women journalists on social media, and reported intimidation of nongovernmental organizations, including harassment and surveillance are all crackdowns which are only getting worse.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the government continued to ‘suppress minority communities and harassed activists, and undermined democratic institutions.’ According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2022, “President Gotabaya Rajapaksha seems determined to reverse past rights improvements and protect those implicated in serious abuses. While promising reforms and justice to deflate international criticism, his administration has stepped up suppression of minority communities,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.

The report highlights the harassment of security forces towards human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and the families of victims of past abuses and suppression of peaceful protests. As covid-19 cases surged in the country, military-controlled response to the pandemic “led to serious right violations”.

A major concern from the minority Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka was the government’s order not to allow the bodies of Covid victims to be buried. According to this report, “several bodies were forcibly cremated, despite experts saying that bodies could be buried with proper safety measures.” This order, which rights activists said was intended to target minorities and did not respect religions, after much criticism was reversed.

A leading British religious freedom advocacy group, CSW, in its report titled, “A Nation Divided: The state of freedom of religious or belief in Sri Lanka,” said the Muslim community experiences “severe” religious freedom violations. A key factor in the violations is the perception by Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists that Muslims are a threat to both Buddhism and the Sinhalese. The report also noted attempts to “reduce the visibility of Islam through the destruction of mosques and restrictive stances on religious clothing.

‘Proud Of Being Able To Speak The Truth:’ Journalist Nidhi Razdan On Her Cyber Attack

Earlier in January, Indian journalist Nidhi Razdan found out she was a victim of one of the most sophisticated and elaborate cyber attacks. Razdan wrote in a piece that it was all an attempt to access her bank account details, personal data, emails, medical records, passport and access to all her devices, including computer and phone.

It all started in November 2019, when she was invited to speak at an event organized by the Harvard Kennedy School. Razdan was later contacted by an apparent organiser of the event, who asked if she would be interested in applying for a teaching position.

“I was interviewed online for 90 minutes, it all seemed legitimate, the questions were thorough and professional. I did a basic google search and found a journalism degree programme being offered by the Harvard Extension School, which lists 500 faculty of whom 17 are categorised as journalism faculty. A number of these people are working journalists. I believed I fit this profile,” Razdan wrote.

In an interview given to me here, Nidhi Razdan says, “I have been a victim of a horrible cyber crime and I am not going to be embarrassed about it, I am proud of being able to stand up, speak the truth and help other people who have been through cyber attacks to have the courage to raise their voice against it.

“I wasn’t the only target, there are other people, I have made my experience public, but most of the other victims are hesitant because of the reaction they would receive,” said Razdan.

Nidhi Razdan, a journalist based out of New Delhi, India has worked with one of the country’s leading broadcasters, NDTV 24×7 for 21 years, where she rose to the position of Executive Editor. Razdan has extensively covered Indian politics and foreign policy, reporting from Pakistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Afghanistan, China, Tibet and more.

“Journalism is not just a job, it’s your life”, Razdan says. At a time when the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index in India has dropped two places and ranked 142 on the 180-country list, Razdan flags her concern on the state of journalism, “I feel as an institution the judiciary has failed us in upholding our rights.”

“Press freedom is difficult in India because of the constant need to control the narrative. The way reporters are being hounded with FIR’s in small towns and false cases for stories that they are working on, that kind of harassment is unjustified and uncalled for,” Razdan says.

In June 2020, a few months into the lockdown, 55 Indian journalists were arrested, booked, and threatened for reporting on COVID-19. According to this report, barely just 40 days into 2021 five journalists were arrested in India, highest in any year since 1992, including FIRs and sedition charges.

RSF in its report has described India as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. “They are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.

“In 2020, the government took advantage of the coronavirus crisis to step up its control of news coverage by prosecuting journalists providing information at variance with the official position,” the report stated.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its report, Getting Away with Murder, ranked India 12th on the index that fares the worst when it comes to prosecuting killers of journalists.

During the 2019 Indian general elections, journalists fighting fake news faced multiple threats and abuse. Several English-language journalists who report on politics and social issues, mostly all female, told CPJ that “online harassment was endemic to their work, while some said they felt the election had driven an increase in social media messages seeking to threaten, abuse, or discredit them.”

According to this report, hostility against women journalists by online trolls is ending up in physical attacks. “The death of Lankesh, which was associated with online violence propelled by Hindutva extremism, also drew international attention to the risks faced by another Indian journalist who is openly critical of her government: Rana Ayyub. She has faced mass circulation of rape and death threats online alongside false information designed to counter her critical reporting, discredit her, and place her at greater physical risk.”

Human Rights Watch in this report said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has increasingly harassed, arrested, and prosecuted rights defenders, activists, journalists, students, academics, and others critical of the government or its policies.

“India continued to lead with the largest number of internet shutdowns globally as authorities resorted to blanket shutdowns either to prevent social unrest or to respond to an ongoing law and order problem,” the report states.

“In the last few years, and post 2014 in particular, we have definitely seen greater attempts to put pressure on the media in ways that I have not experienced before.

“For them (government), democracy means only praise of the leadership, praise of government schemes, in nation building they would like to define what nationalism is for all of us, so the media must fall in line, and communication must be one way. I think it comes from a deep sense of insecurity and the need to control the narrative all the time.

“There is also this certain ecosystem that doesn’t like independent, outspoken women at all, unfortunately that includes women trolls as well,” says Razdan.

In an interview given to me earlier, Geeta Seshu, a journalist who specialises in freedom of expression, working conditions of journalists, gender and civil liberties said, “The internet has always held out the promise of democratic communication.

Organised groups use the internet to incite hatred and abuse. When no action is taken against these vigilante groups by either the state or by private companies, they jeopardise and end up destroying all democratic space,” Seshu said.

As for Razdan, the cyber attack is still being investigated, she says, “it was a very unpleasant experience, I am used to being trolled, but I have been a victim of a very horrible crime. I hope it serves as a lesson and if it can help even one person out there, who has been through a bad experience, then it’s worth speaking up.” (Sania Farooqui is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi.)