In Focus

Subverting the United Nations Human Rights System: The Indian Chronicles

The exponential growth of online and social media has changed the way we receive and process information. Having so much information at our fingertips with the click of a key has a great impact on our lives, for better or for worse. Unfortunately, cyberspace has increasingly become a dark world of fake news and disinformation designed to play to cognitive biases, reinforcing existing prejudices.



To counter this, a growing international community of online investigators, researchers and analysts are rigorously working on tracing the origins, spread, and impact of fake campaigns across the world.  In 2019, EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based independent, non-profit organisation tackling sophisticated disinformation campaigns targeting the EU and Member States, started investigating a fake news organisation, EP Today, which falsely claimed to be an online magazine for the European Parliament in Brussels. 


The links between all these accredited and non-accredited NGOs raises serious questions about their true control and funding sources. Inside the Human Rights Council, people linked to these NGOs are regularly seen with attendees from India who sit in the rooms at all side events related to any group that is speaking about human rights violations by India. Regular targets for attendance, though not the only ones, are the sessions on the freedom struggle and self-determination for Kashmiris. While their looming presence doesn’t bother international speakers on Kashmir, it can be frightening for any individual from Jammu & Kashmir who has somehow been able to make it to Geneva despite the life-threatening implications. These are courageous people. Obtaining a passport and exit visa from the Indian Government to attend is almost impossible. But on the rare occasions someone has made it out to Geneva, on their return they were subjected to harassment, intimidation, extreme violence against them and their families, and arrest under the draconian Public Safety Act or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Many are never seen again. 


But the investigations uncovered something much more startling. While tracing the servers behind the EP Today website they uncovered a highly sophisticated disinformation campaign coordinated by India’s mysterious New Delhi based Srivastava Group, using their links with dubious NGOs, and the leading Indian news agency, Asian News International (ANI), to subvert the international narrative to a pro-India, anti-Pakistan agenda in United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, and the European Parliament in Brussels.  
This led to a ‘deep dive’ by EU DisinfoLab to investigate more extensively, leading to the publication of the Indian Chronicles in December 2019. What came to light was a massive network of hundreds of domain name registrations, online fake news outlets and journalists, and a web of ‘resurrected’ NGOs accredited to participate in the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. These NGOs were working in tandem with a group of non-accredited NGOs and think thanks to denigrate Pakistan. India’s covert operations against Pakistan which involve external and anti-State elements are not new or unknown but rarely has an independent investigation uncovered an operation of this kind of magnitude and sophistication.
What is really alarming and dangerous about this particular one was the scale and how the operation attempted to subvert the international human rights system in Brussels and Geneva through these NGOs. As the Indian Chronicles highlights, “These UN-accredited NGOs work in coordination with non-accredited think-tanks and NGOs in Brussels and Geneva. Several of them – like the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities (EOPM), Baluchistan House and the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) – were directly but opaquely created by the Srivastava group. In Geneva, these think-tanks and NGOs are in charge of lobbying, organising demonstrations and speaking during press conferences and UN side events. They were repeatedly given the floor at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the accredited NGOs.” 
On the publication of the first EU DisinfoLab report, Alexandre Alaphilippe, Executive Director, told the BBC, "More than the fake media outlets alone, it is their combination with the fake NGOs that's really worrying because it provides a mirage of online and grassroots support to a cause. That's exactly where the disinformation lies."  Alexandre Philippe’s point is an accurate reflection of how effective this network has been. The NGO component of the disinformation campaign against Pakistan was a critical element. Their operations provided much of the content spread by the fake news websites then repackaged and amplified by ANI to their extensive domestic and international network. There are many aspects to what has been uncovered. But the impact cannot be fully understood without exploring the relevance of Brussels and Geneva and the complex processes for accreditation of NGOs and participation at the United Nations Human Rights Council. 
Why Brussels and Geneva?
Brussels is the ‘de facto’ capital of the European Union. It hosts the official seats of the European Commission, Council of the European Union, and European Council, as well as a seat of the European Parliament. Brussels is a centre of political activity with Ambassadors to Belgium, NATO and the European Union being based in the city.  All major media organisations have a Brussels correspondent.  
Brussels is also a hub for lobbyists with some estimates putting the number at more than 25,000 representing various interest groups such as climate change, environment, agriculture, trade, counter-terrorism, privacy, and promoting human rights. The NGOs identified in the Indian Chronicles used their representatives there to lobby Members of the European Parliament to create a mirage of institutional support from European institutions to these minority groups, in favour of Indian interests and against Pakistan and, more recently, China. 
Geneva is even more important in understanding what lies at the heart of this campaign and how the content is provided for the fake news websites and ANI. It is one of the main UN headquarters for global affairs. The headquarters of 26 key United Nations Agencies are located in Geneva including the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Another six UN Agencies also have a presence there. All Member States of the United Nations have diplomatic representation. It is also the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 
Although they identified many more, EU DisinfoLab was able to tie at least 10 NGOs directly to the mysterious Srivastava family from India. Other NGOs described in the report as ‘dubious’ have been pushing the same anti-Pakistan messages focused primarily on Balochistan and Sindhi separatism, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, Azad Jammu & Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan.
During the sessions of the Human Rights Council, Geneva is exciting, buzzing with delegations, passionate activists, academics, and other advocates to support an incredible diversity of human rights causes. It’s a place for meeting new people from many countries, and lively, informative discussions. Like many others from around the world, I’ve attended a number of Human Rights Council sessions in recent years to advocate for the rights of Kashmiris in their struggle against horrendous human rights violations by India in Jammu & Kashmir, and their right to self-determination. What can be observed on that ground in Geneva is an eye-opener and brings sharply into focus the operation described in the Indian Chronicles. 
Accredited NGOs
Resurrected accredited NGOs (which have no apparent link to the original mandate and region for which the accreditation was granted) are working together with an even larger group of non-accredited NGOs, speaking against Pakistan.  Indian Chronicles identified more than 10 of these accredited NGOs which can be attributed to the Srivastava Group.

  •  Canners International Permanent Committee (CIPC) – (hidden ties) 
  •  Center for Environmental and Management Studies (CEMS) – (hidden ties) 
  •  Commission to Study the Organization of Peace (CSOP) – (hidden ties) 
  •  Indian Council of Education (ICE) – (transparent ties) 
  •  International Association for Democracy in Africa (IADA) – (hidden ties) 
  •  International Club for Peace Research (ICPR) – (hidden ties) 
  •  International Institute of Non-Aligned Studies (IINS) – (transparent ties) 
  •  Pan African Union for Science and Technology (PAUFST) – (hidden ties) 
  •  United Schools International (USI) – (hidden ties) 
  •  World Environment and Resources Council (WERC) – (hidden ties) 

Non-Accredited NGOs and Think Tanks
Coordinating with this group are non-accredited NGOs, think-tanks, and political parties who attend the UN Human Rights Council on the invitation of the accredited NGOs, to make anti-Pakistan interventions in regular NGO sessions during the Council, speak at side events, and participate in meetings and demonstrations.

  • Baloch Human Rights Council (BHRC)
  • Baloch People's Congress
  • Baloch Republican Party
  • Baloch Students Organisation
  • Baloch Voice Association
  • Baloch Voice Foundation
  • European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS)
  • Institute of Gilgit Baltistan Studies
  • Jammu Kashmir National Awami Party
  • Jammu Kashmir Peace and Development Institute
  • Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM)
  • United Kashmir People's National Party (UKPNP)
  • World Baloch Women's Forum
  • World Sindhi Congress

The links between all these accredited and non-accredited NGOs raises serious questions about their true control and funding sources. Inside the Human Rights Council, people linked to these NGOs are regularly seen with attendees from India who sit in the rooms at all side events related to any group that is speaking about human rights violations by India. Regular targets for attendance, though not the only ones, are the sessions on the freedom struggle and self-determination for Kashmiris. While their looming presence doesn’t bother international speakers on Kashmir, it can be frightening for any individual from Jammu & Kashmir who has somehow been able to make it to Geneva despite the life-threatening implications. These are courageous people. Obtaining a passport and exit visa from the Indian Government to attend is almost impossible. But on the rare occasions someone has made it out to Geneva, on their return they were subjected to harassment, intimidation, extreme violence against them and their families, and arrest under the draconian Public Safety Act or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Many are never seen again. 


The behavior of the NGOs linked to Pakistan who have willingly participated in this network is shameful.  To stand up for a cause you believe is one thing and a basic human right. To be paid to knowingly do so at the behest of India, a hostile power attempting to destabilise and alienate Pakistan is a betrayal and in conflict with the principles of the United Nations Human Rights Council. This aspect of a broader disinformation campaign has been focused only on Brussels and Geneva. If anything, the Indian Chronicles are an alert to look for similar networks elsewhere.


NGO Accreditation at the United Nations Human Rights Council
So what is the difference between ‘accredited’ and ‘non-accredited’ and how are these NGOs able to participate? NGOs can’t just simply turn up to speak at the UN Human Rights Council and be granted access. Non-accredited NGOs and individuals may be invited by an accredited one but all are obliged by the rules to focus only on the topics for which accreditation was given. Clearly, they do not. The processes and rules for NGO accreditation at the Human Rights Council are identified in the following paragraphs to demonstrate how they’ve managed to subvert the system and hijack the narrative. 
The Human Rights Council is the principal United Nations intergovernmental body responsible for human rights. It is composed of 47 Member States, (represented by their own UN Ambassadors), which meet in at least three sessions per year (March, June/July, September) in Geneva. Its role includes “addressing violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, the promotion of respect for human rights for all, and effective coordination and mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system”. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the secretariat for the Human Rights Council. The Procedures for the Human Rights Council, including accreditation of NGOs, are extensive and complex and contain a bewildering array of acronyms.
While the Human Rights Council sessions are primarily for Member State debates, NGOs with Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) can be accredited to participate as Observers at the Council. Since 1946 approximately 5,000 NGOs have been granted accreditation. To be accredited with ECOSOC, NGOs must undergo an application process which can take up to a year, perhaps more. The online process involves:
1.  Creating a profile for the organization (including organization’s type, region, country, other geographic designations, geographic scope and the tier of consultative status requested – General, Special or Roster);
2.   Submitting the online application which includes a questionnaire and extensive supporting documentation, reports from past several years, and financial documents; 
3. Initial screening of the application by the NGO Branch to ensure that the application is complete; 
4. Review of the application by the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs at its regular session in January or at its resumed session in May every year; (current membership of the 19-member Committee 2019-2022 includes both Pakistan and India); 
5. Recommendation by the ECOSOC NGO Committee;
6.  A decision taken by ECOSOC on the application are made in April and July every year. It may approve, seek further information, or reject. 
It is not a simple or quick process and not all applications are approved. Accredited NGOs mentioned in the report short-circuited the system by taking over other, sometimes defunct, accredited NGOs that have absolutely no link to their anti-Pakistan agenda.  Accreditation gives the NGO the right to attend and observe proceedings of the Council; submit written statements; make oral interventions, participate in debates, interactive dialogues, panel discussions and informal meetings. It also allows NGOs to organise side events in one of the 27 conference rooms on issues relevant to the work of the Human Rights Council. This is significant in this matter.
Side Events at the Human Rights Council
UN premises can only be used for meetings or events co-sponsored by a Permanent or Observer Mission to the UN, departments or offices of the Secretariat, or organizations or agencies of the UN system. If an accredited NGO wants to organize an event, they must contact the organizer of the particular event in the respective Office and discuss their idea with them. If selected, the NGO is then asked to coordinate the event with that Office. Guest speakers for panels may be invited. This is common across all causes but rules must be followed.
How the named NGOs divert the system is by first gaining approval for their event then, on the day, switching to something unrelated – an anti-Pakistan topic mostly on Balochistan, Sindh, Pashtun Movement, Azad Jammu & Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan.
To demonstrate how such interventions in the HRC can be amplified globally even through the most respectable online source, an online search of records and online reports of each day’s proceedings at the Council shows the footprint of the activities. Reliefweb – the online humanitarian information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and which had over 9 million views in 2018, carried a report of a general debate in the Council on September 14, 2018.  Six of the accredited NGOs listed in the Indian Chronicles made anti-Pakistan interventions. The absurdity on why these NGOs (originally accredited for causes mostly in Africa) were speaking against Pakistan on Balochistan, Sindh, Pashtun rights, Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, is apparent by their names.

  • African Regional Agricultural Credit Association 
  • Centre for Environmental and Management Studies 
  • Commission to Study the Organization of Peace 
  • International Association for Democracy in Africa 
  • Pan African Union for Science and Technology 
  • World Environment and Resources Council 

As usual, the speakers were the same ones from both the suspect accredited and non-accredited NGOs and think tanks.
Demonstrating at the Broken Chair
Outside the Palais de Nations in the public square known as the Broken Chair (for its eponymous sculpture), NGOs from all over the world hold demonstrations to support their causes. It is a high visibility location being a tram and bus hub for staff and visitors to the Human Rights Council. On any one day, there can be several demonstrations happening simultaneously with human rights groups from a myriad of causes and countries. The Geneva authorities approve these events provided they meet the permit requirements including good behaviour and no damage or littering. They do not differentiate between causes.
It is in the Broken Chair public square that the links between all these players again become blindingly obvious. Located in the middle of the square during every HRC Session, is a very large marquee, adorned with banners and flags, supporting at different times Balochistan separatists, Sindhi separatists, and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and other agendas denigrating Pakistan. The same groups also conduct demonstrations for these causes. Again, the same people are seen there together. 
A key organiser of the multiple anti-Pakistan events in Geneva and elsewhere appears to be Baluchistan House which has multiple links and is named in the Indian Chronicles. Founded by Tarek Fatah (Executive Director), a Pakistani who migrated to Canada, and UK-based Mehran Marri (President, and leader of the United Baloch Army, a designated terrorist group). Tarek Fatah described himself in an interview with CBC after the 2019 EU DisinfoLab investigation as being a friend of Ankit Srivastava and that the Srivastava Group pays him to reproduce his Toronto Sun op-eds in the Srivastava-owned New Delhi Times. Astounding admission. Mehran Marri is involved in the anti-Pakistan activities in Geneva though in 2017 he was permanently banned from entering Switzerland. Baluchistan House appears to be the permit holder for the marquee in the Broken Chair square.
Also involved in coordinating all these groups inside and outside the UN are a group of pro-India individuals from the NGOs named in the Indian Chronicles who are formerly from Azad Jammu & Kashmir but long since based in Europe or the UK.  Their agenda is to damage the legitimate cause of freedom in Jammu & Kashmir and denigrate Pakistan. A Kashmiri human rights activist who has long seen these pro-India individuals in action recently described them as “mercenaries for the Indian State”. It seems an apt description.
Where to From Here?
Since the Indian Chronicles was published, credible international media including BBC, Politico, Euractiv, Associated Press, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Le Temps, and others have run with the story and also sought comments from the EU and Human Rights Council. 
Al Jazeera reported that Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for EU External Affairs, as saying, “The expose will be raised during the EU-India Strategic Partnership dialogue”. Le Temps, a Swiss French-language newspaper focused on how students from universities in Geneva were paid in cash to speak on behalf of fake NGOs at the UN Human Rights Council. Les Jours ran two articles highlighting how the university students were recruited. Reuters carried comments from the UNHRC stating, “UNHRC spokesman Rolando Gomez said the organisation would look into these specific allegations, and that it was aware a number of accredited groups were pursuing their own political agenda or those of governments.” 
The problem is how to take action. Most who understand the internal process of the EU and the Human Rights Council, think it is unlikely that genuine action would eventuate. Perhaps the EU will tighten rules for lobbying in Brussels, this seems unlikely due to the complexities of getting agreement from Member States. Will the United Nations Human Rights Council really take action? Again, most likely not, although it is their duty to monitor the behavior and contributions of NGOs. As they have staffers attending random side events, it would be likely they were not already aware that this has been happening for some time.
Taking action against any NGO discovered to be subverting the rules is complicated and involves agreement by multiple opposing stakeholders. For example, the UNHRC and ECOSOC will only take action against accredited NGOs on the complaint of a Member State harmed by such behavior. Even when a formal complaint is made, it does not necessarily follow that action will be taken. The country behind the behavior of the NGO in question would have to agree. The likelihood of India agreeing to acting on a complaint lodged by Pakistan would almost be nil. Only once some years ago did this happen when both countries felt aggrieved by the actions of an NGO.
At most, a review of processes and application of rules for accreditation might be undertaken. But Member States would have to agree to any change in rules. This would require extensive consultations and would be unlikely to materialize anytime soon, if at all. With little incentive to respect the rules, it is unlikely these NGOs will change their behavior anytime soon.
The behavior of the NGOs linked to Pakistan who have willingly participated in this network is shameful.  To stand up for a cause you believe is one thing and a basic human right. To be paid to knowingly do so at the behest of India, a hostile power attempting to destabilise and alienate Pakistan is a betrayal and in conflict with the principles of the United Nations Human Rights Council. This aspect of a broader disinformation campaign has been focused only on Brussels and Geneva. If anything, the Indian Chronicles are an alert to look for similar networks elsewhere.
The challenges involved in redressing this aggressive disinformation campaign do not abrogate the responsibility of the EU and the United Nations Human Rights Council from taking strong action against these NGOs and their sponsor, India. Their duty is to ensure the rules and principles for engagement and participation are adhered to by all Member States, think tanks, lobbyists, and NGOs. Failure to do so will make a mockery of the international human rights system. The EU and United Nations Human Rights Council must immediately take strong and sustained action.


The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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