FCRA unlawfully obstructing NGOs in India, alleges International Commission of Jurists

India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, (FCRA) is unlawfully obstructing the critical work of non-governmental organizations in India, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said in a briefing paper released on Thursday.

ICJ is a standing group of 60 eminent jurists—including senior judges, attorneys and academics—who work to develop national and international human rights standards through the law.

The ICJ called for immediate action to repeal or revise the offending provisions in the law.

The briefing paper identifies the FCRA as “a tool to silence Indian Civil Society Organizations”. It shows how the FCRA – by its own terms and as applied by the authorities – fails to comply with India’s international legal obligations to respect and protect the rights to freedom of association, expression, peaceful assembly, and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

The FCRA regulates access to foreign funds and prohibits their receipt for any activities purportedly “detrimental to the national interest”.

The ICJ underscores the imprecise and overbroad language of the FCRA, which has left it open to abusive and arbitrary application by the Indian authorities. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) may be prevented from accessing foreign contributions when the groups or their activities are characterized as of a “political nature” or acting against “public interest”, or against “strategic, scientific or economic interest” or “security.”

“By restricting NGO access to foreign funds meant for the NGO sector, the Indian Government is using the FCRA selectively to silence critical voices,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director.

“As recognized by the UN Charter, international cooperation, including through financial assistance, is fundamental to the protection of human rights, and CSOs should be encouraged rather than prevented from engaging in such cooperation to facilitate their critical work,” said Ian Seiderman.

On 20 October 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern that the FCRA was being used to “deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy.”

Since 2014, the Indian Government has cancelled the FCRA licenses of more than 19,000 NGOs, including high profile organizations such as the Lawyers Collective, Greenpeace India, People’s Watch, Compassion International, and Public Health Foundation of India. The grounds for these cancellations include “non-compliance with reporting requirements” and activities deemed “political” or against “national interest” and “economic security.” On 10 September 2020, India froze the accounts of Amnesty International India on the allegation that it had circumvented the FCRA. The action forced Amnesty International India to halt its India operations.

“We see the authorities continuing their clampdown on Indian human rights defenders through arbitrary arrests, restrictions on travel and other forms of harassment. We urge the Indian Government to protect rather than repress human rights defenders in India, whose work is vital to the rule of law in the country,” Seiderman said.