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Modi and Cameron: a very special relationship, but what's not being said?

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is halfway through a three-day state visit to the UK.

Last night he stayed at David Cameron’s countryside retreat, today he dined with the Queen and right now he's hosting a huge Diwali celebration at Wembley, rounded off with what organisers claim will be the most fireworks Britain has ever seen in one go. Intimate, indulgent and explosive – like the start of any close relationship.

Discussions with PM @David_Cameron continued this morning at Chequers.

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 13, 2015

Amidst all the celebrations, you could be forgiven for forgetting that this is a serious visit, helping the leaders take that special relationship to the next level, with a focus on business and trade. And there are some other very serious matters that warrant discussion.

We’re calling on David Cameron and his ministers to take this opportunity to raise some serious human rights issues with Modi's government. Meanwhile, our colleagues in Amnesty India have likewise briefed Prime Minister Modi’s office with the human rights concerns he must raise with his host.

The issues vary for each country, of course – so not comparable scorecards, but rather two very separate to-do lists. The question is: will human rights be sidelined in the quest for smooth trade deals and that special diplomatic relationship?

Productive & extensive discussions with PM @David_Cameron on India-UK ties & global issues.

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 12, 2015

One of the reasons cited by Western governments avoiding raising human rights concerns with other countries is that they don’t want it to seem like one-sided lecturing. Well, problem solved, Mr Cameron. Now you can get as good as you give – from one democratic leader to another.

As PM of the world's oldest democracy, I'm pleased to welcome the PM of world's largest democracy, Narendra Modi.

— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) November 12, 2015

Cameron’s to-do list for Modi

1. Stop cracking down on NGOs

The Indian government has taken numerous steps to smother civil society organisations in the past year, using laws passed in 2010 and 2011 that restrict foreign funding for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – effectively preventing them from speaking out because their work may not be in the ‘national interest’.

This has affected – among many others – Greenpeace India, which was last week ordered to shut down its operations in the country.

2. Stop criminalising free speech

India’s Penal code includes harsh prison sentences for those convicted of ‘defamation’ and ‘sedition’.

There are civil means to pursue legitimate claims of defamation, but criminal defamation and sedition laws are being used to silence people speaking out against those in power – people like journalists and human rights activists. Folk singer S Kovan could face life in prison if convicted for criticising a state chief minister in his songs.

The laws don’t line up with human rights protections for free speech, and their very existence is stopping people from speaking out, for fear of punishment.

3. Don’t confuse critics with terrorists

180 days in detention without charge for allegedly being a member of what is deemed to be an ‘unlawful’ organisation: legal in India under anti-terror law the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The law uses broad and sweeping definitions, and has historically been used to crack down on political opponents and critics. Updated in 2012, the law allows authorities to crack down on freedom of association, with its far-reaching restrictions on links with unlawful organisations, and free speech again.

Modi's to-do list for Cameron

1. Don’t scrap the Human Rights Act

Basic human rights are protected in the UK under the Human Rights Act. Adopted in 1998, the Act brings home the European Convention on Human Rights – a treaty drafted a in the wake of the Second World War – so that its principles are adopted in British courts.

Cameron's government is planning to get rid of the Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights that will ‘curtail the role of the European Court’ – a dangerous sentiment.

Lawyers, judges, barristers and most of the general public agree that the UK government should stop its plans to get rid of the Human Rights Act. At Amnesty, we're worried that such a backwards move could threaten to unravel human rights progress around the world.

2. Work with Europe on the refugee issue

This year, the global refugee crisis really hit home – and headlines – across Europe, as babies washed ashore and thousands were shipwrecked attempting to reach Europe. Many more were saved; many continue to walk in worsening winter conditions across and along borders. But the response from the UK government has been far from adequate.

When it seemed clear public opinion was turning in favour of welcoming refugees, the UK did agree to resettle some people from camps surrounding Syria, but only 20,000 over five years, and just 1,000 by the end of the year - the first of whom are due to arrive next week.

There has been a constant refusal from Cameron’s government to work with a Europe-wide plan that could save lives and lessen the crisis.

3. Realise that security doesn’t have to replace human rights

Existing UK counter-terror laws are already open to misuse (the loose definition of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorism-related activity’ in such laws don’t comply with principles of legal certainty). And new legislation in the works – a Counter-Extremism Bill and the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill – propose unnecessary and broad clampdowns on free speech, association and assembly.

"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone” – words from Cameron himself. Watch out, law-abiding citizens of the UK, you could soon be guilty until proven innocent.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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