December 9th, 2020
Prominent rights defenders from South Asia have strongly denounced attacks on human rights defenders and the media in a bid quell dissenting voices by state and non-state actors in the region. They called for unity among the regional rights activists and groups to counter these attacks.
They were speaking at a webinar hosted by South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional organization with a South Asian membership base committed to promote human rights, peace, and democracy in the region. Over 90 rights activists belonging to all South Asian countries joined the webinar.
The title of the webinar was Fading Democracy and Shrinking Civic Space in South Asia and it was moderated by former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights defenders and lawyer Hina Jillani.
In her address, Jillani said that the presence of a strong and vibrant civil society is undeniably a measure to assess the level of democratic progress of any state. She said that the rights defenders have suffered harm and face great threats to their life, liberty, and security.
She also mentioned that the right defenders across South Asia have been subjected to arrest, disappearances, assassinations, torture, and vilification campaign, which has made it extremely difficult to carry out their work.
Speaking at the occasion, India’s rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising said that democracy allows the rights activist to flourish and do their job without any hindrance.
She termed the civil society as the fifth estate in a democracy but also lamented that spaces for civil society are shrinking because democracy is being shrunk in the region.
“Democracy is meant to create an imagination, which enables us to create a better world and to sustain our civilization but what we are seeing today is a decline of civilization itself”, Jaising added.
She went to say that it is ironically concerning that the freedom of association which includes interlink rights of freedom of speech and assembly is under attack by the democratically elected governments of South Asian countries.
She said that the situation had become so bad for human rights defenders and that they had now become the ‘new minorities’ in the world and they were being termed as “anti-national” by their own governments.
She said new laws as well as old colonial-era laws were still being used to crush HRDs across the region and urged panelists to demand immediate repeal of sedition laws in their respective countries.
Speaking about the state of affairs in Pakistan, Muhammad Tahseen said that there had been a campaign against NGOs in the country and now every NGO was seen as a tool in money laundering, and every right campaigner is considered as anti-state or ‘pro-India’ activist.
Tahseen said that among all the South Asian rights activists, Pakistanis have been the most resilient as they faced the brutalities and oppression of many military dictators but have never given up their struggle. He suggested a regional alliance of all such rights’ activists as it is the only way through which they can carry on their fight and struggle for human rights.
Bangladeshi rights activist Shahidullah Alam said that technology was now being used as a tool of surveillance against opponents of the State, critics, and journalists in Bangladesh. He said that no one could criticise the government without its permission and revealed that freedom of expression was under serious threat while the military intelligence decided who would appear in prime time talk shows on television and what would be the headlines in prominent newspapers of the country.