New Delhi: In a second report on Kashmir in 13 months, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reiterated its accusations about the rising graph of human rights violations and the killing of civilians by state authorities over the past one year.
In June 2018, the then UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had released the OHCHR’s first report ever on the human rights situation in both parts of Kashmir. While Pakistan welcomed it, India had dismissed the report, calling it biased.
Over a year later, an ‘Update’ published under new chief Michelle Bachelet has reached similar conclusions about continuing human rights violations in Kashmir.
Significantly, it also calls on the UN Human Rights Council, of which India is a member, to “consider… the possible establishment of a commission of inquiry to conduct a comprehensive independent international investigations into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir”.
The latest report, which chronicles the period from May 2018 to April 2019, also refers to the Pulwama suicide bomb attack which killed about 40 Indian security personnel and how it led to further tension in Kashmir amidst additional strain on relations between India and Pakistan.
The report had been shared with both India and Pakistan on June 11. Following that, India’s letter to the OHCHR was delivered on June 17, with a request that the report not be published.
The latest OHCHR update has also been rejected by India as the output of a “prejudiced mindset” while claiming that it “legitimises terrorism”. MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that a “strong protest” has been registered with the OHCHR.
“The release of such an update has not only called into question the seriousness of OHCHR but also its alignment with the larger approach of the United Nations,” he said.
The report notes that Jammu and Kashmir civil society organisations have compiled a list of deaths of 160 civilians in 2018, “which is believed to be the highest number in over one decade”. Of the 160 civilians, 71 were allegedly killed by Indian security forces, 43 by members of “armed groups or by unidentified gunmen” and 29 due to shelling by Pakistan troops along the Line of Control.
The OHCHR report noted that the figures provided by the Indian ministry of home affairs are lower, listing the death of 37 civilians, 238 terrorists and 86 security forces personnel till December 2, 2018. In contrast, Kashmiri civil society groups also cited a higher number of deaths of 267 terrorists and 159 Indian security personnel.
The UN body also noted that there is no information of any new investigation into “excessive use of forces leading to casualties” or the status of the five investigations into extra judicial executions in 2016.
“The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir did not establish any investigations into civilian killings in 2017. No prosecutions have been reported. It does not appear that Indian security forces have been asked to re-evaluate or change their crowd-control techniques or rules of engagement.”
The report stated that despite international concerns, Indian security personnel regularly used shotguns as a means of crowd control, “even though they are not deployed elsewhere in India”.
The OHCHR report cited the case of a 19-month-old girl who was hit by pellets in her right eye in November 2018. “According to information from Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, where most people injured by shotgun pellets are treated, a total of 1,253 people have been blinded by the metal pellets used by security forces from mid-2016 to end of 2018,” it stated.
The report again criticised the return of “cordon and search operations” in 2017, which “enable a range of human rights violations, including physical intimidation and assault, invasion of privacy, arbitrary and unlawful detention, collective punishment and destruction of private property”. There was also criticism of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act remaining as a “key obstacle to accountability”.
The OHCHR report also noted that after the Pulwama attack on February 14, there had been an uptick in the number of attacks against Kashmiri Muslims living and working in different parts of India.
“On social media, individuals, journalists and even some political leaders were inciting hatred and violence against Kashmiri Muslims, people critical of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Kashmir policies or those seeking accountability for human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir,” it said, adding that the “Central government-appointed governor of Tripura state” had called for Indians to consider a boycott of all things Kashmiri.
On human rights violations by Pakistan in the part of Jammu and Kashmir across the Line of Control, the report said that residents, especially in Gilgit Baltistan were “deprived of a number of fundamental human rights, particularly in relation to freedoms of expression and opinion, peaceful assembly and association”.
There was also continuing intimidation of journalists, nationalists and pro-independence political party activists in the state’s region under Pakistani control.
The UN Human Right commissioner’s office stated in the report that there was “credible information of enforced disappearances of people from Pakistan-Administered Kashmir including those who were held in secret detention and those whose fate and whereabouts continue to remain unknown”.
Reiterating the observations from 2018 report, the report said that despite “significant challenges”, civil society was able to operate in Jammu and Kashmir, while restrictions in PoK have “limited the ability of observers, including OHCHR, to assess the human rights situation there”.
After the release of the second report in Geneva, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in Delhi that “it was a continuation of the earlier false and motivated narrative on the situation in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir”.
He said that the situation created by years of cross border terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan has been “been ‘analysed’ without any reference to its causality”,
“The Update seems to be a contrived effort to create an artificial parity between the world’s largest and the most vibrant democracy and a country that openly practices state-sponsored terrorism,” Kumar stated.
He also asserted that it was of “deep concern that this Update seems to accord a legitimacy to terrorism that is in complete variance with UN Security Council positions”.
Kumar noted that terrorist leaders and organisations sanctioned by the UN are deliberately underplayed by the report as “armed groups”.
The latest OHCHR report had observed that “while in the 1990s there were reportedly over a dozen armed groups operating in Indian-Administered Kashmir, in recent years four major armed groups are believed to be operational in this region: Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen and Harakat Ul-Mujahidin”. All four, the report added, “are believed to be based in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir”.
However, Kumar protested that the “the legitimisation of terrorism has been further compounded by an unacceptable advocacy of the dismemberment of a UN member State”.
Stating that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, the MEA spokesperson said that the Update has undermined its own credibility by “distorting India’s policies, practices and values”.
“Its failure to recognise an independent judiciary, human rights institutions and other mechanisms in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir that safeguard, protect and promote constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights to all citizens of India is unpardonable. Even more so, as it belittles constitutional provisions, statutory procedures and established practices in an established, functioning democracy,” said Kumar.
He further claimed that the “prejudiced mindset of the Update has also chosen to wilfully ignore the determined and comprehensive socio-economic developmental efforts undertaken by the Government in the face of terrorist challenges”.
Asserting that India follows a policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism, he noted that “motivated attempts to weaken our national resolve will never succeed”.
In its reply dated June 17 as seen by The Wire, India had highlighted the judicial structure and the human rights bodies in the state and the presence of a “free and vibrant media in Jammu and Kashmir”.
There was also a reference to “people of Jammu and Kashmir” having “repeatedly exercised their democratic rights” through elections.
“During the April-May 2019 general elections, 40% voters in six Parliamentary Constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir exercised their franchise,” stated India’s letter to OHCHR.
In fact, turnout in two Lok Sabha constituencies – Anantnag and Srinagar – were much lower, at 8.8% and 14.08% respectively.
On the issue of injuries suffered by civilians, India argued that there is an “absolute restraint in the use of pellet guns”.
Besides, India also asserted that the Indian army has investigated 1052 allegations of human rights violations and 70 personnel have been punished, since 1994. Investigations in several other cases are ongoing, said its letter.
A change in tone
While India has given a strident response publicly, there is also understanding in official circles that the current UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet may not have had total control over the release of the report.
Last June, India’s protest had been more personalised with an inference that the then UN human rights commissioner was ‘biased’ against India. New Delhi had questioned the “intent” behind the report and hinted that“individual prejudices” had fuelled it.
This time, the MEA’s tone is a bit more nuanced.
Indian officials acknowledge that Bachelet had been quick of the mark in condemning the Pulwama attack in February. They also noted that her oral update at the start of the 41st session of Human Rights Council had made no mention of Kashmir.
She has only raised Kashmir once in her opening statement – at the 39th session of the Human Rights Council that opened just 10 days after she took over on September 1, 2018. Since then, she has opened two more HRC sessions – in February and June this year, but there was a conspicuous absence of Kashmir in her speeches.
Further, the June 2018 report was released several weeks before the start of the regular session of the Human Rights Council. This time, the update has been published in the last week of an ongoing session.
Sources claim that the UN human rights commissioner probably had to give a go-ahead to the publication, since a follow-up update had been mentioned in the original report. The current report does not mention that there will be any other updates.
Besides the lack of absence of Kashmir in the UN human rights chief’s statement, the other difference that Indian officials have noted is that there is more space allotted to the situation within PoK, both in the report and the press note.
Indian officials do not expect any adverse impact from this latest ‘Update’, pointing to the languishing state of the previous report. “It was not discussed in the Human Rights Council, rather some member states criticised the activism of the commissioner. At most, it will be used by Pakistan for point-scoring,” said an Indian official.
On its part, Pakistan welcomed the second report which called for setting up a “commission of inquiry” to investigate human rights violations in Kashmir.
However, Pakistan objected to the report drawing a parallel between the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the “prevailing environment in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan”.
“Unlike IoK, which is the most militarised zone in the world, AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan remain open to foreign visitors,” said the press release of the Pakistan foreign ministry.