Under U.N. scrutiny

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Indian soldiers patrolling the Line of Control in Poonch. A file picture. Photo: PTI

Kashmiri youths clash with government forces on the outskirts of Srinagar on June22, following a gunfight in southern Kashmir between government forces and suspected rebels. Photo: AFP

The first-ever United Nations report on Kashmir calls for an international inquiry into multiple violations on both sides of the Line of Control, and the Indian government dismisses its recommendations as “overtly prejudiced”.

One of the last things Shujaat Bukhari did on June 14, the day he was killed, was to highlight the critical report released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Kashmir. Shujaat tweeted about the contents of the report and had told his staff to put the story on the front pages of his newspaper, Rising Kashmir. The report was welcomed by many leaders of civil society in the Kashmir Valley and impartial observers of the situation in the divided State. The Indian government dismissed the report as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated”. While releasing the “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Kashmir: Developments in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir from June 2016 to April 2018, and General Human Rights Concerns in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan”, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, clarified that the data from which the report was compiled had been sourced from publicly available sources and statements and documents put out by official sources in India and Pakistan.

What angered the Indian government was the U.N. Human Rights chief’s recommendation that the Indian authorities should “fully respect the right of self-determination for the Kashmiri people as protected under international law”. It was the first time in many years that a senior U.N. official had dared to offer advice of this kind to a government aspiring to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson dismissed the “recommendations”, stating that they were “a selective compilation of largely unverified information” and were “overtly prejudiced and based on a false narrative”. The official spokesperson went to the extent of stating that the OHCHR report had “violated India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Al Hussein is not a run-of-the-mill U.N. official. He is a scion of the Hashemite dynasty, which rules Jordan today and once ruled Iraq. Al Hussein, who is retiring this year from the U.N., is the first Muslim to be elected as the head of the OHCHR. He has not been afraid of criticising powerful nations, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, for human rights violations. He has said that the U.S. has an obligation under international law to prosecute those responsible for allowing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to torture citizens from other countries. His report on the Saudi-led war in Yemen implied that the kingdom was guilty of war crimes. “The Human Rights Council’s inability to take decisive action by setting up an international investigation is contributing to a climate of impunity, and violations continue to occur on a regular basis. Such outrageous attacks should not be allowed to continue,” Al Hussein said in his report on the Saudi role in Yemen.

It is within Al Hussein’s powers as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to criticise countries and leaders who trample upon human rights and condone torture. He has not shied away from criticising heads of state such as U.S. President Donald Trump and the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Al Hussein described Trump as a “bigot” and a “demagogue” when he was running for the presidency. Trump’s actions, after he took over as President, have more than validated Al Hussein’s views.

Global attention on Kashmir

India had been criticised in international fora earlier on the way it administers Kashmir. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) does this on a regular basis. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has also been critical of the heavy-handed role of the Indian state in Kashmir in recent years. When Nelson Mandela was President of South Africa, he used his influence to include Kashmir in the list of the seriously troubled regions that needed the attention of the international community. Along with Palestine and Western Sahara, Kashmir found a place in the final document issued during the 1998 Durban Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit chaired by South Africa. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was furious with the South African government, as it was for the first time that the Kashmir issue had found mention in a NAM document. But given Mandela’s international stature, the Indian government could vent its anger only through unofficial channels. Since then, India has managed to keep Kashmir out of the NAM agenda, using its considerable diplomatic heft in the organisation.

The Indian political and security establishment continues to pretend that the Kashmir issue is a purely internal one. The U.N. and the international community have not, however, changed their opinion that Kashmir continues to be a “disputed territory” with three claimants—India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), in a statement issued in 1993, said that the people of Kashmir continued to retain the right for “self-determination”. The first UNSC Resolution on Kashmir, passed in 1948, called for the holding of a “plebiscite” in Kashmir after peace was restored in the Valley.

India had agreed to the U.N. recommendation at the time on the condition that Pakistan should withdraw its forces from the Valley. It was only after 1953 that India formally hardened its position on the issue. The trigger was the U.S.’ decision to embrace Pakistan as a military ally and supply weaponry to its army. India then took the position that it would not withdraw its Army from Kashmir. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also reneged on his pledge to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir. The plebiscite issue was put on the back-burner and the UNSC, too, has not demanded it after 1957. The Soviet Union’s backing for the Indian position on Kashmir was crucial when the Cold War was at its height. With the Cold War over, both Washington and Moscow are now urging India and Pakistan to solve the Kashmir issue “bilaterally”.

Even-handed approach

One of the main objections of the Indian government to the OHCHR’s report was that it amounted to “interference” into India’s internal affairs. The report has, in fact, tried to be fair and even-handed, recognising the “complexity of the historical background and political issues that has led to the current situation in Kashmir”. It emphasises the “urgent need to address past and ongoing human rights violations and to deliver justice for all people in Kashmir who have been suffering seven decades of conflict”. It documents the atrocities committed by the “armed groups” operating in the Valley since 1990, and has flagged the Pakistan Army’s involvement in the violence in Kashmir: “Despite the government of Pakistan’s assertions of denial of support to these groups, experts believe that Pakistan’s military continues to support their operations across the Line of Control in Indian-administered Kashmir”. It also notes the forced displacement of Kashmiri Pandits by militant groups and the suppression of political dissent and human rights violations in Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir region.

Al Hussein said that the OHCHR report “is an attempt to break out of the political binaries on Kashmir and bring human rights issues in the region to the fore”. He emphasised that accountability for human rights abuses and violations “cannot be indefinitely suspended while we wait for a political solution in Kashmir”. Both India and Pakistan had refused to grant access to U.N. monitors to the parts of Kashmir they control. The OHCHR had no option but to base its report on remote monitoring. Al Hussein said, “There exists a large deficit in terms of human rights protection on both sides of the LoC. That is why I am calling on the U.N. Human Rights Council to consider setting up a Commission of Inquiry to conduct a comprehensive, independent, international investigation into all allegations of human rights violations and abuses in Kashmir.” He urged the Indian government to have “the confidence” to look into the human rights situation in Kashmir and realise that the violations committed there has led to the alienation of the people there, “particularly young people”.

Critical of Pakistan

The Indian government had specifically targeted the report for ignoring “the pattern of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan”. Al Hussein said that that assertion was far from the truth. The report cites many examples of human rights violations by armed groups supported by Pakistan, involving sexual violence, kidnappings and killings. The report also mentions the inclusion of the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba on the UNSC’s sanctions list.

The report recommended that the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), investigate the deaths of all those killed in security operations as per the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India and called for ending the restrictions on the media, including the arbitrary ban on publications in the Kashmir Valley. The OHCHR urged Pakistan to end the misuse of its anti-terror legislation to persecute those engaging in peaceful, political and civil activities in the part of Kashmir controlled by them. It also called upon the Pakistani authorities to amend the interim Constitution of “Azad Kashmir” that limits the right of freedom of expression and opinion.

Israel model

It is no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party government is trying to replicate some of the brutal tactics employed by Israel in its occupied territories. For an outside observer, there is very little difference in the way the Israeli security forces treat the average Palestinian and the way the Indian security forces treat an ordinary Kashmiri. Since the BJP came to power, the death toll has risen sharply. In 2012, there were 117 fatalities. The death toll rose to 358 in 2017. More than 150 civilians lost their lives by the middle of this year.

More than 70,000 Kashmiris have reportedly been killed since violence first erupted in a big way in the Valley in 1989. Around half a million Indian soldiers are permanently stationed in the Kashmir Valley. With the Central government threatening to take an even tougher line on militant groups as well as against protestors, casualties in the Vvalley could rise even further this year. Firing across the LoC between the two armies has also intensified since the BJP took over.

The Narendra Modi government seems to be determined not to talk either to the Hurriyat or to the Pakistan government. One of the first things that the Modi government did was to scuttle the formal dialogue process with Pakistan.

A recent proposal by the Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, for trilateral cooperation involving India, China and Pakistan within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation framework was immediately spurned by New Delhi. In 2017, too, China had made an offer to mediate and help resolve the Kashmir issue. China had said that it was willing to play a “constructive role” in improving relations between India and Pakistan.

China has a vested interest in ensuring that the situation in Kashmir does not go out of control. Kashmir is not too far away from Xinjiang province where a restive Uighur population resides. The Islamic State already is active in Afghanistan and is said to have established connections in Kashmir. The I.S. “army” has hundreds of Uighur fighters. Also, as the Chinese point out, peace in the subcontinent is good for the region and its economy. The U.S. never ceases to remind the world that Kashmir is a dangerous flashpoint that has pitted two heavily armed nuclear neighbours against one another. Bill Clinton had described Kashmir “as the most dangerous place in the world”. President Trump has also used similar terminology to describe Kashmir.

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