UN Human Rights Chief Raises Kashmir at Start of HRC Session, India Regrets Mention

Michele Bachelet's comments were part of the “Global Human Rights Update” on the situation across the world, from China to Sri Lanka, Venezuela to the US.

New Delhi: UN high commissioner for human rights Michele Bachelet has welcomed the release of some Jammu and Kashmir political leaders and the limited internet restoration in two Kashmir districts, but expressed concern that many still remained behind bars and called for the full reversal of the communication blockade in J&K.

At the start of the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on Monday, Bachelet gave a “Global Human Rights Update” on the situation across the world, from China to Sri Lanka, Venezuela to the US.

In her section on India, Bachelet mentioned that in the last one year in Jammu and Kashmir, “incidents of military and police violence against civilians continue, including use of pellet guns, as well as incidents related to militancy”.

Kashmir and other human rights issues in India had also been part of Bachelet’s updates in previous sessions of the UNHRC.

She observed that changes in the constitutional status and domicile rules of J&K have generated “deep anxiety”. The new media policy unveiled by the J&K administration has also constricted the space for criticism, she noted. “…the space for political debate and public participation continues to be severely restricted, particularly since new media rules have prohibited vaguely defined ‘anti-national’ reporting,” she said.

During the changes in Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status in August 2019, most mainstream politicians were taken into custody. Some of the big names, like former chief ministers Omar and Farooq Abdullah have been released, but several, including Mehbooba Mufti, are still in detention.

“While I welcome the release of some political and community leaders, hundreds of people remain in arbitrary detention, with many habeas corpus petitions still pending – including those of many of Jammu and Kashmir’s political leaders,” stated Bachelet.

On the recent tentative loosening of the restriction on the Internet in Kashmir, Bachelet said, “I welcome the initiatives to extend services to remote areas, and the recent conditional restoration of full Internet connectivity in two districts – which should be applied promptly to the rest of Jammu and Kashmir.”

She also commented critically on the situation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, noting that residents of POK “also have limited Internet access, creating difficulties in accessing education and other vital services”.

“I remain concerned about ongoing restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression and association,” Bachelet added.

The UN human rights chief stated that her office was “committed to continuing its engagement with both India and Pakistan, to uphold the rights of the Kashmiri people – which is the best way to prevent further tensions and conflict”.

The Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted Bachelet’s statement on Jammu and Kashmir, but did not mention her views on PoK.

While there was no immediate response from the Ministry of External Affairs, on Tuesday, India’s permanent representative to UN in Geneva, Indra Mani Pandey expressed regret that Bachelet mentioned Jammu and Kashmir in her oral update.

Pandey claimed that citizens in Jammu and Kashmir “have been enjoying the same fundamental rights as people in other parts of India” since the constitutional change to remove its autonomous status in August 2019.

“We have been able to revive grass root democracy and provide a new momentum to social and economic development, despite the challenge posed by [the] COVID-19 pandemic and persistent attempts by one country to infiltrate terrorists to derail this process by all possible means,” he claimed.

The Indian ambassador added that by extending coverage of “positive and affirmative federal legislations” and repealing “outdated laws”, the government has “reaffirmed its commitment to delivering socio-economic justice to disadvantaged people in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, including women, children, minorities and refugees”.

While the Indian statement claimed that there had been unprecedented governance benefits, there was no response on the UN human rights chief’s call to release all political detainees and remove restrictions on internet in the state.

Note: This article was updated at 0125 on Wednesday with India’s response