The 28-year long silence over gross human rights violations in Kashmir has finally broken and the first ever United Nations Human Rights Council’s report, consisting of 49 pages, renewed the global interest in the Kashmir dispute. Although it slightly hints at the human rights concerns in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, too, the major focus remains the Kashmir Valley which is, according to the UNHRC report, one of the most militarised zones in the world.
Kashmiri activists across the world termed it a major diplomatic triumph and an outcome of their restless lobbying at the global power centres — Geneva, Brussels and Washington. The contents of the report are largely explicit and quite persuasive.
The UNHRC categorically urges India and Pakistan to “fully respect the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir as protected under international law.” The citation of the right to self-determination in the UNHRC report is also considered a major breakthrough by various analysts and journalists. While talking to TNS, Khurram Pervaiz, a leading human rights defender from Srinagar, said this report is in addition to the United Nations resolutions passed a few decades ago, asking India and Pakistan to guarantee the right to self-determination for the Kashmiris.
In 2005, International Commission of Jurists which was the first representative of an international human rights organisation clearly called upon both India and Pakistan to recognise and respond to the call for self-determination by the people of Jammu and Kashmir. However, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United Nations and other international organisations have been avoiding to talk about the right to self-determination as a whole and particularly for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Almost all major Kashmiri dissident groups have been urging the United Nations Council for Human Rights for a long time to send its mission to the Kashmir Valley to investigate severe human rights violations such as the presence of unmarked mass graves, cases of disappearance, custodial killings, intolerance to political opponents and curbs on civil liberties, but to no avail.
The UNHRC used to refer to the Kashmir situation in a vague manner in its annual reports as if it was a minor and insignificant issue. However, in the recent uprising, particularly after the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani in July 2016, the young people of Kashmir pitched vigorous resistance that was largely unarmed and peaceful. Meanwhile, the present Bharatiya Janata Party government, along with its military leadership, unleashed violent attacks on protest marches. The indiscriminate use of pellet-firing shotguns against the protesters generated global hue and cry.
The UNHRC report records that other than the Kashmir Valley, pellet-shotgun has not been used against protesters anywhere in India. It is claimed by several civil society organisations and particularly the Srinagar-based Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) that during these uprisings, most of the deaths were caused by “injuries from pellet shotguns, bullets, tear gas shells, drowning, inhaling of chemical shell fumes and shooting by unidentified gunmen”. A large number of people, including young girls and boys, have been partially or completely blinded due to indiscriminate use of pellet-shotguns.
Interestingly, social media outlets played a significant role in exposing the blatant human rights violations in the Kashmir Valley during the last couple of years. Despite frequent internet shutdown and physical curbs, citizen-driven journalism put forth horrible videos of the beating, abuses, torture and humiliation of people by the Indian security forces. Sadly, Major Nitin Gogoi tied a Kashmiri young man to his jeep as a human shield and drove him around a town which made headlines worldwide.
To conduct a comprehensive independent international investigation regarding the allegations of human rights violations, UNHRC will establish a commission of inquiry. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, acknowledged that Kashmir is a living conflict. “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,” he said.
The report highlighted some major issues like the impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice. It says 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 normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardise the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations.” It also lamented the fact that not a single armed forces personnel was prosecuted during the last 28 years. “There is also total impunity for enforced or involuntary disappearances, with little progress towards a credible investigation of complaints, including the ones about the alleged sites of mass graves in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region,” it maintains.
Rape and sexual harassment have been used as a tool for intimidation since 1990. Some of the international human rights organizations, such as Asia Watch and Amnesty International as well as Srinagar-based JKCCS have been raising this issue since long but the international community has paid no attention to these reports. The UNHRC report has picked up this issue quite forcefully. It says, “Chronic impunity for sexual violence also remains a key concern in Kashmir. An emblematic case is the Kunan-Poshpora mass rape 27 years ago when, according to survivors, soldiers gang-raped 23 women. Attempts to seek justice have been denied and blocked over the years at different levels.”
It is a matter of fact that the Kashmiri resistance has not been able to attract substantial international sympathy. This report has the potential to divert international attention towards the Kashmir issue and underline the significance of its political resolution. Moreover, it may lure some other international organisations to work over numerous dimensions of the Kashmir dispute. Due to a lack of access to the region, most of the international organisations avoid engagements in Kashmir but the UNHRC has established a new model by interjecting a remote monitoring mechanism. It is believed that the local Kashmiri civil society organisations and credible people of the area were contacted to furnish the report. Likewise, other organisations can also engage local people to gather information and widen their understanding about the nature of the conflict as well to find ways and means to develop a political framework for the settlement of the Kashmir issue.
As anticipated, India has rejected the report and termed it a conspiracy to destroy its world image. Therefore, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein defended the report by saying: “It is indeed motivated — motivated by the desire to contribute to the search for peace and justice in Kashmir, and I urge you to read it in that spirit.”
The government of Pakistan also needs to improve human rights conditions in the areas under its control, i.e., Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan, the report suggested. The report also condemned the control of AJK and GB from Islamabad although both the regions have been given massive powers recently.