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Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran

IMG_3551The Advocates for Human Rights offers volunteers a remarkable and rewarding breadth of opportunities to effect change around the world. As an example, I recently had a chance to advocate for the rights of Iranians with disabilities when I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with The Advocates to lobby the United Nations Human Rights Council on a variety of human rights issues.

A Persian Proverb says “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind”:  Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran.

Iran Under Review by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was considering the  initial report submitted by Iran since its adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. In its report, and its opening remarks to the Committee, Iran painted a rosy picture of its progress in removing obstacles and providing greater equality and support for persons with disabilities.

Even without digging beneath the surface, though, the language of those documents displayed a continuing view that persons with disabilities are lesser beings. The State reported as an accomplishment, for example, that premarital genetic testing is required for all couples in Iran “in order to prevent the birth of children with disabilities.”

It is difficult to assess thoroughly the status of human rights in Iran because of the lack of independent civil society or non-governmental organizations (NGOs, like The Advocates) working on the ground there. Instead, Iran has what are called “GONGOs,” for “government-organized non-governmental organizations.” GONGOs often purport to act as watchdogs, but in reality they are mechanisms of the State. Members of our group were actively pursued and questioned by an Iranian GONGO whose representatives were very interested in finding out what we planned to tell the CRPD.

 Persons with Disabilities and the Death Penalty 

Despite the difficulties, The Advocates were able to identify and report on several specific areas of concern.  They presented to the CRPD a shadow report that addressed issues related to the justice system. Iran provides no procedural safeguards in its death penalty process for individuals with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Those familiar with U.S. death penalty law know that there is a significant body of case law addressing the execution of defendants with such disabilities, including a number of Supreme Court decisions. The Advocates urged the CRPD to recommend that Iran suspend its death penalty for people with these disabilities, and take steps to ensure proper safeguards in future cases. While opposing the death penalty in all instances, The Advocates sought a recommendation that the law not provide lesser punishments for crimes against victims with disabilities.

Private Briefings and Public Hearings

I attended an interesting private briefing, during which The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist provided members of the CRPD with details on Iran’s use of amputation as a punishment for certain crimes, such as theft.  Examples were given of the amputation of fingers, hands or feet, and the use of chemical blinding.  The defendant may not have any disabilities when the sentence is given, but is left afterward with a disability imposed by the government. Since defendants are often poor and lack education, this likely leaves them with little ability to find work.  The stigma associated with this visible disability and its well-understood origin put the individual at a severe disadvantage for life.

I was also able to attend public hearings at which Iran’s delegation responded to a list of issues and concerns raised by the CRPD. Some of the questions touched on issues discussed at our earlier private briefing. Most of the answers were vague and circular, providing little in the way of actual facts and data, despite specific requests for these, or evidence of progress.  There was a great deal of talk about meetings, trainings, brochures and pamphlets, and more meetings, but seemingly little in the way of concrete results. Some CRPD members pointedly remarked on the lack of answers.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

The outcomes of the process, the CRPD’s “concluding observations”  were published in April. I was pleased to see that the CRPD included concerns and recommendations on issues that had been raised by The Advocates, as well as on LGBT rights.  The CRPD’s stated concerns included “the enforcement of mutilation as a form of criminal sentence, and the stigmatization against persons who have impairment as a consequence of such punishment,” as raised in our private briefing.

The CRPD also noted that “persons with disabilities, particularly persons with psychosocial and/or intellectual disabilities may be at risk of facing a greater risk of death penalty due to lack of procedural accommodations, in criminal proceedings,” as addressed in The Advocates’ shadow report.

The CRPD also expressed concern about “discrimination against persons perceived to have a disability, including on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation, being forced to undergo medical treatment.”

One of the lessons of this work has been the need for and value of patience. UN treaty bodies like the CRPD can’t simply order a country to change its conduct. The language of international diplomacy sometimes seems, to a newcomer like me, less strong than it ought to be. But participants in the process understand expressions of “concern” to indicate that the requirements of the convention are, in the CRPD’s opinion, not being upheld. Accompanying recommendations for resolving these concerns will be the subject of thorough review in the future, and Iran will be required to account for its implementation of, or failure to implement them.

International scrutiny, and international pressure, can change the course of a country’s conduct as the flow of water erodes rock and changes a river’s course. The change is incremental, but real and lasting.

By Lisa Borden, Birmingham-based Pro Bono Shareholder at Baker Donelson where her own pro bono legal work focuses on representation of indigent death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings.  Ms. Borden volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program and traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates’ team in March 2017 and March 2015.

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Hate groups, incidents proliferating in U.S., The Advocates tells UN Human Rights Council

The increase in hate groups in the United States and the rise in incidents targeting migrants, refugees, and other groups were the focus of an oral statement made to the United Nations Human Rights Council by The Advocates for Human Rights.  The Advocates for Human Rights’ Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt delivered the following oral statement on March 17, 2017 during the Human Rights Council’s debate on racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration.

Mr. President:

The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the rise in incidents targeting migrants, refugees, and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in the United States, as well as the proliferation of hate groups.  Of greatest concern, however, is that some who have actively supported racist and xenophobic positions have assumed powerful leadership and advisory roles in the executive branch, lending an air of legitimacy to those views.

Recent changes to immigration policy raise serious concerns about racial and national origin profiling by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE “deports by attrition” by making undocumented migrants fearful of remaining in the U.S. Indeed, ICE arrests have increased sharply and we have received numerous reports of people being taken into custody outside courtrooms, in vehicles, and at their homes.

Local law enforcement has turned over thousands to ICE following traffic stops or other encounters. To facilitate removal, ICE routinely interrogates these migrants without counsel, intimidating them into agreeing to be deported without a hearing. An estimated 75% of deportees waive all legal rights, including claims to asylum, protection under CAT, and claims based on family unity.

These policies erode trust between immigrants and law enforcement, a trust many communities have worked to build in the interest of public safety.  Yet the administration’s January 25 executive order on domestic immigration enforcement would bar federal funding to jurisdictions that adopt community policing policies.

The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the profiling and religious discrimination inherent in the administration’s most recent attempt to ban entry of people from 6 majority-Muslim countries and to halt the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. People who are or are perceived to be Muslim report facing additional scrutiny upon entry into the U.S. and their family members living abroad face an uncertain future.

The Advocates for Human Rights encourages the Human Rights Council to keep this issue at the forefront of its agenda.  Further, we call on all Member States, including the United States, to honor non-refoulement obligations and ensure that national immigration policies, as well as law enforcement practices, do not discriminate based on race, national origin or other status.

Thank you.

 

Their stories untold: Widows voices yet to be heard

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It was an afternoon in July 2013 in a rural community in Kumasi, Ghana, when 87 widows shared the ordeals they suffered at the hands of so-called “customs” after their husbands passed away. During an annual human rights survey by Commission of Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), I discovered a cultural practice which very much still stood strong in our society yet was a total infringement of the human rights of widows.

Although their stories differed slightly, all of the women agreed that widowhood rituals served no benefit, but rather brought more hardships to widows. I recall the tears in their eyes as this meeting brought back dreadful memories. A 34-year old widow burst into uncontrollable tears as she recalled how her husband’s relatives took all of the farm lands (the family’s main source of income) because, according to custom, the husband’s nephew was the rightful heir. She was forced to consume nothing except a soft drink once a day continuously for 40 days as part of the cleansing ritual. She recounted that the resulting stomach problem she developed was considered punishment for her alleged crime of killing her husband with witchcraft. Eventually, she and her seven children who were between the ages of two to 14 years were pushed out of the small house they lived in. With no one to turn to, she resorted to begging on the street and hard labor where she faced continued sexual and labor exploitation.

Widowhood within  some cultures in Africa and other countries is characterized by degrading and inhumane rituals that can amount to torture. These rituals inflict grave abuse of widows. The encyclopedia of Death and Dying in its report, “Widows in Third World Nations” reported that

“…in Nigeria … a widow may be forced to have sex with her husband’s brothers, “the first stranger she meets on the road,” or some other designated male. This “ritual cleansing by sex” is thought to exorcise the evil spirits associated with death, and if the widow resists this ordeal, it is believed that her children will suffer harm. In the context of AIDS and polygamy, this “ritual cleansing” is not merely repugnant but also dangerous. The widow may be forced to drink the water that the corpse has been washed in; be confined indoors for up to a year; be prohibited from washing, even if she is menstruating, for several months; be forced to sit naked on a mat and to ritually cry and scream at specific times of the day and night…”

Widows suffer other types of violations, as well. Widows may be deprived of their home, agricultural land, business assets, and sometimes their children.  Notwithstanding the promulgation of major Treaties like Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that guard against these violations, these practices still persist. These harmful practices inflict both physical and psychological violence on women and create an opportunity for abuse and infringement of their rights. It supports unequal power relations between men and women. Through these disproportionate cultural practices, many widows are exploited by male relatives of their deceased husbands. Instead of protecting and supporting these widows, they deny them any access to their husband’s land or property.

Among some tribes in the northern part of Ghana, widows are subjected to a customary practice called “Widow Inheritance” which is a form of Levirate marriage (a system in which the brother of a deceased man is made to marry the widow of his brother). In this case, the widow is forced into a marriage regardless of her consent. This permits the deceased man’s family to choose a male relative to marry the widow, preventing the widow from making her own decision to remain unmarried or married. It essentially promotes forced marriage. If a widow insists and succeeds in remaining unmarried after the death of her husband, she is bound to face maltreatment and rejection by her husband’s family and community. She is usually accused of witchcraft, having bad luck, or having a hand in her husband’s death. On the other hand, when they accept to enter into a marriage, they are faced with a lot of hostility by the wives and children of the men they marry. Also they stand the risk of being infected with a sexually-transmitted disease.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person and to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Also the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees the right to equal protection under the law and the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health and requires the “free consent” of both parties to enter into marriage. The Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa specifically addresses the issue of widows, spells out that state’s parties shall take the necessary legal measures to ensure that widows enjoy all human rights through the implementation of the following provisions:

“…widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading
treatment…a widow shall automatically become the guardian and
custodian of her children….”

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) protects a number of human rights, including that men and women shall have the same right to enter into marriage and the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with free and full consent. CEDAW also mandates state’s parties to recognize women’s equality with men before the law with the same legal capacity as in civil matters. Importantly, CEDAW requires state’s parties to:

“[M]odify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and
women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and
customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the
inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped
roles for men and women.”

Widows are supposed to be protected from degrading, inhumane treatment, and unwarranted disinheritance under these laws. Despite most African states being parties to these international and regional treaties, the plight of widows remains unaddressed in most countries and the pains they suffer seem to be viewed as normal and inevitable by the societies in which they live. In every community there are widows neglected to the harshness of hunger and poverty. Harmful practices such as the widowhood rituals are challenging to modify, and attempts to change or eliminate them demand the collaboration and cooperation of traditional authorities, community leaders, government, and the society at large.

By Abigail Ofori-Amanfo, a 2016-17 Humphrey Fellow at University of Minnesota who is completing her professional affiliation with The Advocates for Human Rights. A women’s right activist, she works to educate rural women and girls in Ghana on their rights and what steps they can take to prevent them from being violated.

Learn more about the best practices in drafting legislation on maltreatment of widows.

“I can march.”

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This was my first march. I really did not know what to expect. I spent the evening before the march sitting on the basement floor in our house with my sister and our friends painting posters. When we finally got to the march – which was no easy feat because the DC Metro was so overwhelmed with numbers of people, we had to walk – the sheer number of people prevented us from getting close enough to hear any of the speeches. We could not even see the Jumbotrons. I had to wait until I got home to learn what some of the speakers, including people like Gloria Steinem, had to say.

What I did hear and see, however, were the voices and actions of people engaged in peaceful protest. Even in the midst of the crush, people were friendly and civil. The energy was palpable. From the looks of it, people were at this march, born at the grass roots, for many different reasons. Some were there to protest the new administration. Others were there to ensure that their voices were heard on a variety of themes, including reproductive rights, gender equality, immigration, racial equality, and climate change. Homemade signs were everywhere.  Frequent chants included:  “My body/my choice!”;  “This is what democracy looks like!”; and “Women’s rights are human rights!”

What I saw on the ground was inspiring, and what I saw on my social media feeds inspired me, too. My Facebook and Instagram pages had hundreds of pictures of my “sisters” in different parts of the country marching in their hometowns. Even if we might have been at the marches for different reasons  and in different locations, we were connected and empowered.

I know that the march has been controversial at some levels – even in my high school.  Some question how the march can be successful – as there was not a singular focus. However, I did see a common focus: the need for respect.

Last week in my 10th grade European history course, we focused on the French Revolution.  One of the things I learned about was the “march” of October 1789 when more than 7,000 women marched from Paris to Versailles protesting the scarcity and high prices of bread.  They had a goal of bringing King  Louis XVI back to Paris so that he would be closer and arguably more responsive to the people. They succeeded! The crowd, numbering more than 60,000 people, escorted the royal family back to Paris. Some say that this was a major turning point in the French Revolution.

I don’t know if Saturday was a major turning point. But it was an important reminder of the power people have when they work together. It was also a reminder of the powerful voice women have and the importance of exercising it. When the marchers return to their homes, I hope they remember that the march is not a substitute for long- term action. It’s just the beginning; they need to take action in their local communities. Whether that action is calling their legislators or running for office themselves, it is important.

I am excited to see where this takes us – and I am grateful to the women who organized this march for exposing me to the possibilities of collective action.

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman (pictured on left in photo above), a 10th grade student in Washington, D.C.

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Modern-day slavery in the Persian Gulf

Trafficking word cloudThe Advocates for Human Rights receives a barrage of emails from across the globe, people who are looking for information and assistance in a wide variety of human rights issues. The requests for assistance are a window into the current human rights problems in the world, which oftentimes are virtually unknown outside of the country or region.

One example that I find especially heartbreaking is the modern day slavery that is happening in the Persian Gulf region. Through the Kafala system, a policy of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), citizens or companies sponsor “foreign” workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in a host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering the person to exploitation. The GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Every year, thousands migrate from Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf region to seek employment. With some differences, the story of these workers repeats itself; people from the poorest parts of the world are toiling in sweat and blood in the shadow of unimaginable wealth. In such conditions, however, the international community enjoys investment incentives, luxurious shopping centers, and dreams of the World Cup (many of its facilities are built by migrant workers).

They Are Entrapped

The plight of migrant workers begins in their home countries when they are deceived in the recruitment process and promised liveable wages. Migrant workers usually take out large loans to pay the fees of local recruitment agencies that arrange their work contract and travel documents. While migrant workers are heavily dependant on their salaries to survive, they should devote most of their wages to service loans.

As a common practice, sponsors confiscate workers’ passports. Even when workers have their passports, they still must have their sponsor’s permission to leave the country. Migrant workers have limited options; continue in their jobs, or quit the job and work illegally for different employers. They have reported a culture of fear and intimidation in which there is no access to justice, especially for those who work illegally.

They Are Segregated and Exploited Slaves

Most migrant workers live in substandard conditions in remote areas. In Qatar, for instance, the segregation has been built through legislation by the Central Municipal Council (CMC). With the establishment of “family zones,” migrant workers have been banned from living in Doha; and have been prevented from enjoying public areas, such as shopping centers on certain days. Such laws legitimize negative stereotypes about migrant workers and have the effect of further entrenching segregation.

The World Cup Nightmare

In response to reports of worker’s deaths (in the World Cup facilities), the Qatari government commissioned a law firm to investigate. The recommendations of this investigation about legal reforms, however, have never been followed seriously. While the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants called for Qatar to repeal its Kafala system, it seems that the Qatari government intends to rename the system without removing its exploitative provisions. According to the latest report of the International Laborer Organization (“ILO”), Qatar has failed to observe the international standards regarding migrant workers. Two years prior, the ILO asked Qatar to take meaningful actions, otherwise a United Nations inquiry would be launched in 2017 that will make possible imposing international sanctions. As Human Rights Watch reported, Qatar has promised little and has delivered far less. By continuing in this way, the International Trade Union Confederation reports that, about 4,000 workers will die before the World Cup 2022.

Any will for change?

Considering the lack of protective measures for migrant workers, host countries must make fundamental changes in the Kafala system. In addition, they have enough financial means to ensure safe work, standard living conditions, and decent wages for foreign laborers. Simultaneously, migrant workers’ countries of origin have the duty to monitor the conditions of their citizens and provide them with proper consular support. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that international companies will acknowledge their responsibility for the miserable conditions of their migrant laborers. For this reason, human rights activists across the Persian Gulf region and beyond must shed light on the lives of migrant workers to end modern-day slavery as a common practice among nations in the region.

By Mehrnoosh Karimi Andu, a third-year J.D. student (class of 2017) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

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Cameroon must act to protect its children from Boko Haram

Boko Haram in Cameroon
In 2015, Boko Haram released images taken at a training camp for child soldiers in Nigeria (Photo: Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa Media). Image link and article link.

During my time this summer as an intern at The Advocates for Human Rights, I’ve encountered many horror stories of human rights violations around the world. Yet none has shaken me more than the terrorist group Boko Haram’s new war tactic: kidnapping children and deploying them as suicide bombers.

Since its uprising against the Nigerian government in 2009, the militant Islamic group with allegiance to ISIS has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced nearly 2.3 million people. According to the Global Terrorism Index, it is the world’s deadliest terrorist group over ISIS. Much of the world, however, learned of Boko Haram only after its abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014. Most of the girls remain missing to this day.

The latest development in Boko Haram’s violence that has spread beyond Nigeria’s borders is the harrowing use of children in suicide attacks, and the country with the highest incidence is Cameroon. According to UNICEF, 21 suicide attacks involving children took place in Cameroon between January 2014 and February 2016, while there were 17 in Nigeria and two in Chad.

As with children taken by Boko Haram elsewhere, those captured in Cameroon are forced to serve as not only suicide bombers, but also combatants on the front line, human shields, and guards – collectively known as “child soldiers.”

What have Cameroonian authorities done in response to Boko Haram’s increasing exploitation of their children as tools of war?

Cameroon joined a multinational task force to fight against Boko Haram and continues to conduct offensive military operations, but the protection of child soldiers embroiled in the conflict has not been a priority of the government. In its periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, ― a body of experts monitoring implementation of the human rights treaty specific to children ― Cameroon does not make a single reference to child soldiers nor Boko Haram’s use of children in its aggression.

Furthermore, the government does not offer organized support to former child soldiers. As Cameroonian forces have recaptured territories held by Boko Haram, some abductees have been found and released. According to UNICEF, however, many are not even welcomed home and instead viewed with deep suspicion because of the fear that they were radicalized in captivity. In particular, girls who were forcibly married to their captors and became pregnant as a result of rape face marginalization and discrimination due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. Accused of being Boko Haram wives, they are rejected by relatives and community members.

In the face of egregious abuses committed against Cameroonian children by Boko Haram and the mistreatment persisted by society, the government has been silent for far too long and must take action to better protect its youth from the effects of armed conflict. Instead of penalizing children associated with Boko Haram as was the case in the mass arrest and detainment of Quranic school students in 2014, the government ought to treat them as victims in need of protection.

In July, The Advocates and our Cameroonian partner Centre pour la promotion du droit (Center for the Promotion of Law or CEPROD) submitted a joint report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Child, identifying specific measures that the Cameroon government should enact.

First, the government should harmonize its national legislation with international standards that prohibit the recruitment of children by non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram. Cameroon has ratified both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the accompanying Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Under these treaties, Cameroon has the duty to enact measures to prevent the recruitment of children by armed groups, including the adoption of necessary legal measures. At present, however, Cameroon does not have any law that addresses the use of children by armed groups. Domestic provisions criminalizing this practice must be in place in order to prosecute perpetrators and stop offenses from occurring in the first place.

Second, the Cameroonian government should develop a comprehensive system of demobilization, recovery, and reintegration for children previously under the influence of armed groups. For the fraction of child soldiers who are rescued or able to escape from Boko Haram, life after captivity is supposed to be better. Yet these children are abandoned by their own families and left wholly vulnerable from their torturous experiences under Boko Haram. It is the State’s responsibility to ensure that they are safely moved to rehabilitative centers and to assist them in their physical and psychological recovery as well as their reintegration into society.

Recruiting children to participate in hostilities is a blatant human rights violation under international law. Yet a State’s failure to protect its children from such recruitment is also a violation of its human rights obligation. The Cameroonian government must act now to safeguard the rights of its children.

By: Nayeon Kim, a rising senior at Yale University studying political science and psychology.  She was a 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program  through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  

Additional reading:

Joint submission from The Advocates and CEPROD to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on Issues Relating to Children in Conflict with the Law and Protection & Care of Children Affected by Armed Conflict (July 2016)

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On India’s Independence Day: A promise unfulfilled for religious minorities

PM Modi in Washington
Washington: Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8. PTI Photo (PTI6_8_2016_000187A)

“India lives as one; India grows as one; India celebrates as one,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered these lofty words to a joint session of U.S. Congress on June 8 of this year. The rosy picture he painted of India, however, is betrayed by the reality of communal strife and intolerance on the ground. India, the world’s largest democracy, was founded as a secular liberal democracy:  in essence a promise to all Indians of their fair share of prosperity and the pursuit of the good life regardless of religion, background, or creed.

Regretfully, as India celebrates its 70th Independence Day on August 15, that promise remains unfulfilled for the many Indians who are deprived of their equal rights through both government action and inaction.

There are two broad areas of concern. The first is the rising religious tensions linked to alleged government-backed Hindu nationalism and the corresponding rise of communal violence and religious intolerance. The second is the lack of redress through courts, shown acutely by extrajudicial violence, custodial killings by the police, and unbearably long court waiting times. Both of these areas of concern have lack of accountability at their core, with perpetrators of both religious- and non-religious-based violence going unpunished.

India has always been a melting pot of traditions, religions, and languages and is constitutionally a secular country to account for such diversity. The increasing atmosphere of Hindu nationalism has perverted those principles with disastrous results: there have been more incidents of communal violence and a stronger culture of impunity for officials who commit religion-based crimes.

Since Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the government has permitted the virulent ideology of right-wing Hindu groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to become commonplace within government and society. Testifying before the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights hearing on religious minorities in India in June, Indian journalist Ajit Saha described the impact of the RSS as the “sine qua non about human rights in India.” This ideology has been linked with increased rates of vigilantism against religious minorities. Such acts include killing a Muslim man for allegedly eating a cow, disrupting marriages between Muslims and Hindus, and forcibly converting Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. All this has happened with official complacency. “The prime minister [has] not weighed in to admonish the culprits,” noted Saha.

Communal Violence
India has a long and tragic history of communal violence which in the Indian context can be defined as violence directed against religious or linguistic minorities. The most significant occurrences in the recent past were located in Uttar Pradesh( 2013), Odisha ( 2007-2008), Gujarat ( 2002), and Delhi in (1984). The scale of violence can be immense. The Gujarati violence was particularly noteworthy leaving “between 1,200-2,500 Muslims dead, destroyed homes, and forced 100,000 people to flee.”  Similarly the Delhi riots in 1984 “resulted in deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs.” The rates of communal violence have increased substantially under Modi, “India experienced a 17% increase in communal violence, when compared to the previous year. In 2015, there were 751 reported incidents of communal violence, up from 644 in 2014.” Included in this violence in 2015 were attacks on Christian churches.

There are numerous problems for Indians seeking redress for communal violence. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that,
“NGOs, religious leaders, and human rights activists allege religious bias and corruption in these investigations and adjudications. Additionally, religious minority communities claim that eye-witnesses often are intimidated not to testify, especially when local political, religious, or societal leaders have been implicated in cases.”

Lack of Accountability: Gujarat
The involvement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP officials in the violent riots in Gujarat in 2002 and the lack of accountability are of particular concern. While Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, was responsible for coordinating the government’s response to the violent mobs, there is strong evidence to suggest that top officials actively refused to intervene in the violent riots. The tragic case of Ehsan Jafri, the Congress MP who gave terrified Muslims safe haven in his home during the Gulberg Society riots, is telling. According to eyewitnesses, Jafri made frantic calls to top Gujarati officials, including Modi himself, to no avail. Eventually Jafri offered himself to the gathering mob outside his house in an effort to save those inside his home. He was butchered by the mob while they set his home alight, killing most inside. Many BJP officials were acquitted from charges relating to the riots. Civil society activists like Teesta Setalvad have protested the judicial proceedings, citing the hostility of investigators towards witnesses and the restricted purview of the investigation.

Retaliation Against Civil Society
The draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) is being used to restrict funding and revoke licenses of NGOs that criticize the government. Activist Setalvad has been a prime target of government retaliation for her work seeking justice for the Gujarat victims and a new trial for Modi and other Gujarat officials implicated in the 2002 violence. As Ajit Saha testified, “The Supreme Court had to stay attempts to arrest her on charges of financial embezzlement through the Citizens for Justice & Peace, her NGO. Her offices and homes have been raided several times, failing each time to recover incriminating evidence.” It is alleged that the registration of Lawyers Collective, an Indian NGO dedicated to human rights issues, was suspended because of its legal assistance to Setalvad.  Similarly, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was refused admission to a flight to London to testify to Parliament about human rights abuses in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Custodial Killings
There is a terrifyingly high number of people in India killed in police custody. More than 14,000 Indians died in the custody of police or in prisons during 2001-10 at a rate of four a day for ten years. The vast majority of deaths, 99.9 percent according to The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), is the result of torture. “Torture remains endemic, institutionalised and central to the administration of justice,” reports the ACHR.

Encounter Killings
Another pervasive extrajudicial practice is “encounter killings.” Officially, these are deaths resulting from encounters with suspects. But in reality, these tend to be outright murders by police. As explained by Ajit Sahi, “Nearly all such encounters are suspected of being “fake,” that is, pre-apprehended men and women killed in cold blood.”  The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution’s 2013 report on India noted that, “[A]ccording to the NHRC [National Human Rights Council], 2,560 deaths during encounters with police were reported between 1993 and 2008. Of this number, 1,224 cases were regarded by the NHRC as “fake encounters.”

Prime Minister Modi spoke about the ideal India in his speech to U.S. Congress in June. An India united rather than fragmented.  As it is, India is riven with religious conflict and intolerance. People are killed for their communal identities in mob violence while officials either take no action or, themselves, contribute to the killing.

If India is to ever achieve the greater goal of Indian unity, its leaders must continue to acknowledge and correct shortcomings, including holding all perpetrators of violence accountable.

Additional reading by The Advocates for Human Rights:

India’s Politics Without Principles 

Hold Modi Accountable

The Advocates’ Robin Phillips Testifies Before Congressional Committee

Joint Written Statement on Religious Minorities in India submitted to United Nations Human Rights Council

By Adam Krok, a sophomore at Yale (class of 2019) expecting to major in Ethics, Politics and Economics. From Johannesburg, South Africa, he is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  He enjoys nothing more than a good argument or a compelling case.