The writer chairs pen internationals writers in prison committee and worked for amnesty international from 1
No government likes what amnesty international has to say about its human rights record. over nearly six decades, amnesty has gathered testimonies of victims and painstakingly built cases of human rights violations, citing international standards to hold governments to account. many of those governments have condemned the group, disputed its findings, and denied its researchers visas. but amnesty has persisted.
States have now found another way to restrict its work by placing administrative and procedural hurdles in the way, instituting inquiries and threatening prosecution. it is working. this week amnesty said it would halt operations in india after its bank accounts were frozen by the government, blaming an incessant witch-hunt.
The indian home ministry said the claims were exaggerated and that amnestys statements about speaking truth to power were meant to divert attention from its own activities. it claims amnesty violated indian law by circumventing a ban on its receipt of funds from overseas. amnesty says its financial management is transparent and complies with local laws.
The irony of amnesty being unable to function in the worlds most populous democracy was not lost.while the group describes itself as apolitical, its victim-centred research and focus on human rights abuses are often criticised as interfering in politics.
Amnestys recent reports have made it unpopular with prime minister narendra modis administration. it has been openly critical of controversial changes to indias citizenship act as well as the clampdown in the muslim-majority state of jammu and kashmir, after the government revoked the regions political autonomy last year.
The group has also spoken out against abuses by the security forces and opposed indias death penalty. it campaigned against the use of anti-terror and sedition laws to suppress peaceful dissent, and called for corporate accountability over justice for victims of the 1984 bhopal gas disaster and those displaced by extractive industries.
But mr modis clampdown on amnesty is part of a larger pattern of centralising and controlling most voluntary activities in india. civil society organisations are allowed to function, but expected to comply with the governments directives. they are seen as doers rather than thinkers: they may provide services as long as they do not advocate structural change.
Foreign donors say they find it increasingly difficult to support non-governmental organisation activities in india, unless for purely philanthropic projects. reporting and compliance requirements have made it cumbersome and costly for indian ngos, with curbs placed on where and how they spend their money.
The contagion has spread beyond india. globally, the space for civil society is shrinking fast, as governments crack down on dissent. amnesty itself has faced restrictions in recent years. its presencein egypt,established after the arab spring, was shortlived. in 2016, amnestys moscow office was closed for a month by a local authority over alleged non-payment of dues, but reopened later. in 2017, turkey arrested senior local officials of amnesty. changes in asylum laws in hungary have in effect criminalised the groups advocacy of refugee rights.
But what has happened in india is on a different scale. amnesty has never had to shut up shop in a country of this size, or in one which is a democracy.
India calculates that the time is right. global interest in human rights advocacy is waning, with the us absorbed in a divisive election and other countries preoccupied with the covid-19 pandemic or national political upheaval. this is an excellent time for authoritarian leaders to restrict civil liberties, as mr modi has just shown.