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February 5, 2019

Breaking the cycle of atrocities

Opinion

February 5, 2019

Like numerous policy implications of the so-called war on terror, one particular implication has been to equate the struggle for independence and the right to self-determination of the people in Kashmir, Palestine and elsewhere with the self-serving broad definition of ‘terrorism’.

Following the footprint of its new-found ally Israel, India meticulously and unabatedly continued this mantra. It is also a pity that on account of India’s swelling economic and political muscle at the global stage, the so-called advocates and champions of human rights rarely chastised India for its untold human rights abuses in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IoK). Like the Palestinian crisis, the Kashmir dispute is also the product of the British colonial power that left it unresolved at the time of Partition and has since then remained a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. It is also one of the principal reasons for instability and the arms race in the region.

While most international powers have turned a blind eye to Indian atrocities, the UN for the first time went beyond paying lip service and came up with a report on the human rights situation in Kashmir. On June 14, 2018, the UN released a report pertaining to unabated human rights violations in the valley. The 49-page report, the first-ever document assembled by the UN on human rights abuses in Kashmir, depicts a grim situation. The report has highlighted a consistent pattern of human rights violations and the blunt and protracted impunity shown towards abuses committed by military personnel against unarmed residents of Kashmir.

The primary focus is on gross human rights atrocities perpetrated from July 2016, when unprecedented demonstrations erupted across the scenic valley after Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, the young leader of an armed group who like many other educated young people was forced by persistent military insults and reprisals to take up arms.

“In responding to demonstrations that started in 2016, Indian security forces used excessive force that led to unlawful killings and a very high number of injuries,” the UN report states. Citing credible statistics that are available on record, the report mentions that up to 145 civilians have been killed by the security forces from mid-July 2016 to April 2018.

During this period of enormous turmoil, one of the most lethal munitions employed at will by Indian security forces against protesters is the pellet-firing shotgun. Despite repeated calls from human rights and civil-society organisations to prohibit its deployment, the weapon is still being used by security forces. As per publically-verified estimates, 17 people were killed by shotgun pellets between July 2016 and August 2017, and 6,221 people were injured by the metal pellets during this period. Civil-society organisations lament that many of the victims have partially or completely lost their eyesight.

“Impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice are key human rights challenges in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, noting that the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990 (AFSPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978 (PSA) have “created structures that obstruct the course of justice, impede accountability and jeopardise the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations”.

The AFSPA prohibits the prosecution of military personnel unless the Indian government grants prior permission to this effect. “This gives security forces virtual immunity against prosecution for any human rights violation. In the nearly 28 years that the law has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir, there has not been a single prosecution of [personnel of the] armed forces granted by the central government,” the report affirms.

Rather than censuring or punishing military personnel involved in flagrant human rights abuses, the new norm is to encourage such tendencies to further intimidate and terrorise locals. For example, in May 2017, the Indian military command gave a commendation to an army officer who unlawfully used a Kashmiri civilian as a “human shield”. Similarly, in a setback for the accountability of security force abuses, the Indian Armed Forces Tribunal suspended the life sentences of five army personnel who were convicted in 2014 for the 2010 extrajudicial killing of three villagers in the Machil Sector in Jammu and Kashmir.

Owing to this, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and numerous other international as well as national civil-society organisations have repeatedly asked for the revision of the notorious AFSA laws that have provided blanket impunity to law-enforcement personnel against any human rights abuses committed against non-combatant Kashmiris.

In view of this precarious situation, the report has urged that the UNHRC needs to consider establishing a commission of inquiry to conduct a comprehensive independent international investigation into the allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir. It has asked that it is the right time to address past and ongoing human rights violations and abuses, and deliver justice for Kashmiris, who have suffered a conflict that has claimed or ruined thousands of lives for seven decades.

There is almost total impunity for enforced or involuntary disappearances, with few attempts being made to credibly investigate complaints, including those into the alleged sites of mass graves in the Kashmir Valley and the Jammu region.

Chronic impunity for sexual violence also remains a key concern in Kashmir. Human Rights Watch has noted that the rape of 150 women by Indian military personnel in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora in the Kupwara district on the night of February 23, 1991 is a symbolic case where no military official was ever punished. Referring to this case, the UN report has observed that “attempts to seek justice have been denied and blocked over the years at different levels”.

“The political dimensions of the dispute between India and Pakistan have long been center-stage, but this is not a conflict frozen in time. It is a conflict that has robbed millions of their basic human rights, and continues to this day to inflict untold suffering,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein asserted. “This is why any resolution of the political situation in Kashmir must entail a commitment to end the cycles of violence and ensure accountability for past and current violations and abuses by all parties, and provide redress for victims.”

Among its recommendations, the report demands that India should urgently repeal the AFSPA; establish independent, impartial and credible investigations to probe all civilian killings since July 2016 and all abuses committed by armed groups; and provide reparations and rehabilitation to all injured individuals and to the families of those killed in security operations. Similarly, the PSA should be amended to ensure its compliance with international human rights law, and all those held under administrative detention should either be charged after a transparent trial or immediately released.

Although the report was a welcome step and aptly highlighted the plight of Kashmiris living in the shadows of more than 500,000 Indian soldiers deployed in the valley, it merely documented human rights abuses over a very short period of time. There is a need to awaken the conscience of other UN bodies, international civil-society organisations and the international community as a whole about not turning a blind eye towards Indian brutalities in Kashmir.

While India has greatly expanded its international clout in many capitals and aspires for membership of the UN Security Council, the UN report on human rights in Kashmir has exposed Delhi’s tall claims of respecting international laws, particularly vis-a-vis the fundamental human rights of Kashmiris.

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.

Email: muradali.[email protected]

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