The Indian government should immediately act on the recommendations in the first-ever report by the United Nations on human rights in Kashmir, Human Rights Watch said.
India has long accused Pakistan of providing material support, arms, and training to the insurgency that has resulted in more than 50,000 deaths since 1989. The Indian government should work with UN Human Rights Council member countries to create an independent international investigation that would comprehensively examine allegations of serious human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian-administered part of the disputed province.
The 49-page report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) includes human rights abuses in both Indian and Pakistan-held parts of Kashmir, but notes that those in Pakistan Kashmir are of a “different calibre or magnitude.” In India, the report focuses on abuses since July 2016, when violent protests erupted in response to the killing of a militant leader by government forces. The government’s immediate response was to reject the report, calling it “fallacious, tendentious and motivated.”
“The Indian government’s dismissal of the serious concerns raised in the UN’s Kashmir report is unjustified and counterproductive,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Instead the government should accept these findings and take prompt steps in support of an impartial international investigation.”
The OHCHR report said the Indian security forces used excessive force in response to the often violent protests that began in 2016, which civil society groups estimate killed as many as 145 people and injured many more. It also said that armed groups killed up to 20 people in the same period.
Just hours after the report was released, unidentified gunmen killed prominent journalist Shujaat Bukhari, editor of the Rising Kashmir, outside the newspaper’s office in Srinagar.
Among other abuses, the UN reported the use of pellet-firing shotguns against violent protesters resulting in deaths and serious injuries. Official government figures list 17 people as being killed by pellet injuries between July 2016 and August 2017. In January 2018, the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister told the state legislative assembly that 6,221 people had been injured by pellet guns.
The report expressed concern over impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice. It noted that the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) have “created structures that obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardize the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations.”
The AFSPA, which is also present in several states in India’s northeast, grants the armed forces the power to shoot to kill in law enforcement situations, to arrest without warrant, and to detain people without time limits. The law forbids prosecution of soldiers without approval from the central government, which is rarely granted, giving them effective immunity for serious human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented India’s failure to address longstanding grievances in Jammu and Kashmir and echoes OHCHR’s call for the repeal of AFSPA. Numerous expert committees in India have also recommended steps to address past human rights violations, including a repeal of AFSPA, but the Indian government has ignored these recommendations.
The OHCHR report also called for the repeal of the Public Safety Act, which it said was used to detain over 1,000 people, including children, between March 2016 and August 2017. As Human Rights Watch and others have documented, the Public Safety Act is an administrative detention law that allows detention without charge or trial for up to two years, and has often been used to detain people on vague grounds for long periods, ignoring regular criminal justice safeguards.
The report also calls out impunity for past abuses such as killing and forced displacement of the Kashmiri Hindu pandits, and enforced or involuntary disappearances. It found little movement toward credible investigations of alleged sexual violence by security forces personnel and of unmarked graves, which many believe can include the remains of individuals forcibly disappeared.
While the report notes that “NGOs, human rights defenders and journalists are able to operate in the Indian state of Jammu Kashmir,” in September 2016, the Indian authorities arrested Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez. He was detained to prevent him from traveling to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to raise concerns about the security force crackdown on violent street protests. Several UN human rights experts publicly called for his immediate release, noting that the travel ban and his detention were “a deliberate attempt to obstruct his legitimate human rights activism.” Parvez spent 76 days in detention before being released in November.
The report discusses the state government’s frequent use of communication blockades and suspension of mobile and internet services, as well as restrictions on freedom of expression, targeting of media and journalists. In 2016-17 widespread protests, long periods of curfew, frequent strikes, and arson attacks on schools all had a cumulative impact on students and their right to education.
The report also discusses abuses in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and in Gilgit-Baltistan, including the misuse of anti-terrorism laws to target dissent, and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and opinion, peaceful assembly and association.
“The Indian government should use this moment, including the current ceasefire, to correct its course and provide justice and redress for decades of abuses,” Ganguly said. “Addressing human right abuses by all sides is the best hope to end this brutal cycle of violence and impunity in Jammu and Kashmir.”