India and Pakistan have taken no steps to improve human rights situation in Kashmir: UN

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File photo. Photograph by Vikar Syed for The Kashmir Walla
JK Bank

Srinagar: The United Nations has said that neither India nor Pakistan have taken any concrete steps to address the the numerous concerns raised in an earlier report by the rights body.

A UN human rights report on the situation in Kashmir and Pakistan-Administered Kashmir from May 2018 to April 2019, says the number of civilian casualties reported over the 12-month period may be the highest in over a decade.

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The new report, published on Monday by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, describes how tensions over Kashmir – which rose sharply after a deadly suicide bombing in February targeting Indian forces in Pulwama — continue to have a severe impact on the human rights of civilians, including the right to life.

According to data gathered by local civil society, the report says, “around 160 civilians were killed in 2018, which is believed to be the highest number in over a decade. Last year also registered the highest number of conflict-related casualties since 2008 with 586 people killed, including 267 members of armed groups and 159 security forces personnel.”

The report notes that the Union Ministry for Home Affairs has published lower casualty figures, citing 37 civilians, 238 militants and 86  forces personnel killed in the 11 months up to 2 December 2018.

Of the 160 civilian deaths reported by local organizations, 71 were allegedly killed by Indian forces, 43 by alleged members of armed groups or by unidentified gunmen, and 29 were reportedly killed due to shelling and firing by Pakistani troops in areas along the Line of Control. According to the Government of Pakistan, a further 35 civilians were killed and 135 injured on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control due to shelling and firing by Indian forces during 2018.

“Two armed groups have been accused of recruiting and deploying child soldiers in Kashmir, and armed groups were reportedly responsible for attacks on people affiliated or associated with political organizations in Jammu and Kashmir, including the killing of at least six political party workers and a separatist leader. In the lead up to local elections scheduled for October 2018, armed groups threatened people participating in the elections and warned of “dire consequences” if those running for election did not immediately withdraw their nominations.” The report says.

The report notes that in Indian-Administered Kashmir, accountability for violations committed by members of the Indian  forces remains virtually non-existent.

Despite the high numbers of civilians killed in the vicinity of encounters between forces and members of armed groups, it says, “there is no information about any new investigation into excessive use of force leading to casualties. There is no information on the status of the five investigations launched into extrajudicial 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.”

Arbitrary detention and so-called “cordon and search operations” leading to a range of human rights violations, continue to be deeply problematic, as do the special legal regimes applying to Indian-Adminstered Kashmir.

“The Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990 (AFSPA) remains a key obstacle to accountability,” the report says. “Section 7 of the AFSPA prohibits the prosecution of security forces personnel unless the Government of India grants a prior permission or ‘sanction’ to prosecute. In nearly three decades that the law has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir, there has not been a single prosecution of armed forces personnel granted by the central government. The Indian Army has also been resisting efforts to release details of trials conducted by military courts where soldiers were initially found guilty but later acquitted and released by a higher military tribunal.”

In addition, the report notes, “no security forces personnel accused of torture or other forms of degrading and inhuman treatment have been prosecuted in a civilian court since these allegations started emerging in the early 1990s.”

And despite international concerns at the alarming numbers of deaths and life-altering injuries caused by the security forces’ regular use of shotguns as a means of crowd control – even though they are not deployed elsewhere in India – they continue to be employed, leading to further deaths and serious injuries.

The report describes how, among various other incidents, a 19-month-old girl was hit by metal shotgun pellets in her right eye on 25 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.”

The report also examines human rights violations in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. While different in nature to the violations taking place on the other side of the Line of Control, people living in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in Gilgit-Baltistan are also deprived of a number of fundamental human rights, particularly in relation to freedoms of expression and opinion, peaceful assembly and association. The report notes no steps have been taken to resolve the main issues, including a number of highly problematic legal restrictions, outlined in the previous UN Human Rights Office report.v

“Anti-terrorism laws continue to be misused to target political opposition as well as civil society activists,” the report says, adding thatnationalist and pro-independence political parties “claim that they regularly face threats, intimidation and even arrests for their political activities from local authorities or intelligence agencies.” Threats are also often “directed at their family members including children.”

Citing specific cases, the report also notes how journalists in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir “continue to face threats and harassment in the course of carrying out their professional duties.”

The report also says the UN Human Rights Office has received “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.”

“In almost all cases,” it adds, “victim groups allege that Pakistani intelligence agencies were responsible for the disappearances. There are fears that people subjected to enforced disappearances from Pakistan-Administered Kashmir may have been detained in military-run internment centres in Pakistan.”

The report also notes that four major armed groups believed to be currently operating in Indian-Administered Kashmir – Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen and Harakat Ul-Mujahidin – are believed to be based on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control.

The report stresses that “neither the Governments of India nor of Pakistan have taken clear steps to address and implement the recommendations” made in the UN Human Rights Office’s previous report, published in June 2018. It therefore restates those recommendations along with additional ones. It also calls on the 47-Member-State UN Human Rights Council 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.”