Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India should override the objections of the army and keep his 2004 promise to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Human Rights Watch said.
The Indian defense establishment has opposed even minor amendments to the law, despite the findings of independent bodies in India and abroad that the law has resulted in numerous serious human rights violations over many years, Human Rights Watch said.
India’s Home Ministry has proposed amendments, but the army insists that it needs the law to operate in what it calls “disturbed areas.” News reports suggest that the army is blocking an effort to present the amendments for a vote during the upcoming winter session of parliament. Home Minister P. Chidambaram has reportedly tried but failed to persuade the army to support the amendments.
“There is broad recognition in India that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act should be repealed because it has led to so many abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Singh should overrule the army and keep his promise to abolish this abusive law.”
The AFSPA 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. As a result, the armed forces routinely engage in torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation in army barracks. The law forbids prosecution of soldiers without approval from the central government, which is rarely granted.
The law violates India’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to life, to be protected from arbitrary arrest, and to be free from torture and other ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said. The provisions protecting soldiers from prosecution deny victims of abuses the right to a remedy because it forbids prosecution of soldiers without approval from the central government, which is rarely granted.
The AFSPA was enacted on August 18, 1958, as an emergency measure to allow the deployment of the army to counter a separatist movement in the northeastern Naga Hills. However, it has remained in force in several northeast states for five decades and in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990. Repeal of the AFSPA has become a core demand of residents and activists in the areas in which it is in operation.
Following the 2004 death in military custody of Manorama Devi, a Manipuri woman suspected of being a militant, violent protests broke out in Manipur. Singh set up a judicial inquiry to examine the law and promised to abide by its conclusions. The committee, led by Justice Jeevan Reddy, found that while the security situation required continued deployment of the army, the AFSPA should be repealed and replaced by a more “humane” law.
In April 2007, a working group on Jammu and Kashmir appointed by the prime minister also recommended revoking the act. The Supreme Court, while upholding the constitutional right to enact such laws, has issued guidelines to prevent human rights violations, but these are routinely ignored.
International bodies have repeatedly recommended the repeal of the AFSPA. These include the United Nations Human Rights Committee and UN member states during India’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in 2008.
“India is a democracy in which the armed forces are supposed to be subject to civilian control,” Adams said. “While the government should take into account the army’s viewpoint, it should not let the military have a de facto veto over a law that has led to the killing and torture of so many people.”
The government has a responsibility to ensure the protection of citizens from abuses by separatist militants and armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. However, the AFSPA has proven to be ineffective and has instead encouraged abuses by all sides.
The provision for immunity for soldiers who commit abuses is of particular concern, Human Rights Watch said. While the army insists that it has internal mechanisms to punish those who commit crimes, there is no public information about whether and how soldiers or officers are disciplined or prosecuted. Victims’ families are seldom informed about court martial proceedings or other disciplinary measures and thus believe that perpetrators are left unpunished.
“The army supports the Armed Forces Special Powers Act because of the immunity it provides soldiers who commit serious abuses,” Adams said. “It should realize that such abuses fuel public anger, permitting militant groups to flourish and putting soldiers at greater risk.”