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Assam "disenfranchisement" is a form of racial bias: Top UN officials tell Govt of India

By Our Representative
In a letter to the Government of India (GoI), made public after “failing” to get any response on the concerns expressed regarding the current updation process of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) has taken serious view of the danger of disenfranchising a whopping four lakh people in Assam.
Pointing out that as of December 31, 2018, a total of 3.62 million individual revision claims have been filed, out of four million “who had not been included in the draft NRC released on 30 July 2018”, the letter, written by five senior officials of the OHCHR, states, most of these persons “belong to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities”.
The letter has been signed by Leigh Toomey, vice-chair, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; David Kaye, special rapporteur, promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on minority issues; E Tendayi Achiume, special rapporteur, contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; and Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
“In addition”, the letter states, “It is reported that until December 31, 2018, more than 200,000 objections were filed against people who were already included in the draft NRC of July 2018.” Allegedly filed by “Assamese nationalist groups” just hours before the expiry of the December 31 deadline, the letter suspects, “most of these objections may not have been supported by relevant documentation or specific reasons for such an objection”.
The letter also takes exception to the Supreme Court giving its nod to the deadline for the publication of the final NRC list, July 31, 2019, pointing out, the verification process does not include reviewing the cases of those who have been already declared as “doubtful voters” by the Election Commission and thus excluded from the July 2018 draft NRC, or those who have been declared as “foreigners” and “descendants of declared foreigners” by the Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam.
Also expressing concern over the BJP seeking to extend the NRC to the rest of India, the letter quotes the section “Combating Infiltration” in the BJP 2019 election manifesto. The manifesto, while talking of “a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas due to illegal immigration, resulting in adverse impact on local people’s livelihood and employment”, promises to not only expeditiously complete the NRC process but “implement NRC in a phased manner in other parts of the country.”
Pointing out that those individuals who will fail to prove their citizenship face the risk of “being declared as “foreigners”, thus facing the risk of being declared as “de facto statelessness”, the letter says, “They could be sent to one of the six detention facilities currently operating in Assam for this purpose (Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Tezpur), or ‘pushed back’ to what is claimed to their ‘country of origin’ (Bangladesh)”.
Seeking a complete report on all this, the letter reminds the Government of India that it is not following several international human rights norms and standards with regard to NRC, providing a detailed explanation where the state has gone wrong in Assam.

Excerpts:

We would like to remind your Excellency’s Government of its obligation under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), ratified by India on December 3, 1968. Article 1 (1) defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life”.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has frequently reiterated that discrimination based on religious grounds is covered by ICERD in cases where it intersects with other forms of discrimination prohibited under article 1(1). We recall that Article 2 (1) of ICERD obliges States Parties to prohibit and eliminate any act or practice of racial discrimination against persons and/or groups.
To this end, States must ensure that public authorities and institutions on the national and local level act in compliance with this obligation. In accordance with article 6, States Parties must not only ensure the effective protection against racial discrimination of everyone within their jurisdiction, but also provide access to remedies and adequate reparation to victims of racial discrimination.
We would also like to draw the attention of your Excellency’s Government to the right to nationality as enshrined in various international legal instruments ratified by India. The right to nationality entails the right of each individual to acquire, change and retain a nationality.
Article 5 (d) (iii) of ICERD is particularly relevant as it explicitly obliges States parties to guarantee the right of everyone to equality before the law, including in the enjoyment of the right to nationality, without discrimination on any prohibited grounds. In this connection, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has reiterated that the deprivation of citizenship on the basis of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin violates States parties’ obligations to ensure non-discriminatory enjoyment of the right to nationality (see e.g. General Recommendations No. 30, para. 14).
With respect to the potential disenfranchisement of those excluded from the updated NRC, we would like to reiterate that Article 5(c) of ICERD requires States to ensure non-discrimination and equality before the law in the enjoyment of political rights. This includes the right to participate in elections, to take part in Government and public affairs, and to have equal access to public service.
We draw attention to the United Nations 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Declaration on Minorities), which refers to the obligation of States to protect the existence and the identity of minorities within their territories and to adopt measures to that end (article 1), as well as to adopt the required measures to ensure that persons belonging to minorities can exercise their human rights without discrimination (article 4).
Article 2 further establishes that persons belonging to minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely, without any interference or any form of discrimination and provides for the effective participation of minorities in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life, as well as in decision-making processes on matters affecting them.
Article 4.1 establishes that “States will take measures where required, to ensure that persons belonging to minorities may exercise fully and effectively all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination and in full equality before the law.”
We also would like to draw your Excellency’s Government attention to the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues in his recent report to the General Assembly “Statelessness: A minority issue” (A/73/205), in particular his conclusions and recommendations in which he recalls that “States must not arbitrarily or discriminatorily deny or deprive minorities of citizenship” and notes that “State requirements for the granting of citizenship, including in relation to any preference in terms of linguistic, religious or ethnic characteristics, must be reasonable and justified in 11 order not to constitute a form of discrimination prohibited under international law.” (paras 50 and 56).
Finally, we would like also to bring the attention of your Excellency’s Government to the report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/38/52), which identifies and reviews contemporary racist and xenophobic ideologies, and institutionalized laws, policies and practices, which together have a racially discriminatory effect on individuals’ and groups’ access to citizenship, nationality and immigration status.
We would like to draw specific attention to her recommendations and especially to “take specific steps to end statelessness, including by putting an end to the practices and policies identified [in the report] that render persons stateless and in doing so, make them vulnerable to extreme human rights violations” (para. 67 (c)).
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Click HERE for text of the letter

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