‘A human rights crisis’

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Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/ AFP

Interview with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

IN this email interview, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, tells Frontline that “accountability for human rights abuses and violations cannot be indefinitely suspended while we wait for a political solution. It is by adhering to human rights principles that tensions can be reduced and the ground prepared for a sustainable solution.” He details the consequences of the denial of permission to the U.N. by Pakistan and India to conduct a field-level assessment of the human rights situation in Kashmir and how a “lack of accountability, repressive laws and a culture of impunity have created a human rights crisis in Kashmir”. Excerpts:

What prompted you to prepare a report on the human rights situation across both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir at this point in time?

For the past two years, I have been urging both India and Pakistan to give the U.N. Human Rights Office unconditional access [to Kashmir]. After repeated refusals by both sides, we decided to conduct remote monitoring, which led to the public report that covers both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We used information from multiple sources, including official figures provided by the two governments, parliamentary debates, information availed through the Right to Information [RTI] process, public reports by national and international human rights and research organisations and statements made by leaders on both sides.

In your reckoning, what is the most startling finding of the report?

The report highlights the excessive use of force by Indian security forces in India-administered Kashmir that has led to unlawful killings and a high number of injuries, including the use of the pellet-firing shotgun, and I repeat my call to the Indian authorities to take immediate and effective steps to end the excessive use of force.

In your opinion what is the biggest obstruction to a lasting peace in Kashmir?

One of the overarching conclusions of the report is that the lack of accountability, repressive laws and a culture of impunity have created a human rights crisis in Kashmir and this does not help in building sustainable peace.

How do you assess the efficacy of the State Human Rights Commission of Jammu and Kashmir (SHRC) in addressing the legitimate concerns of the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir?

Regarding the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, research by my office found that it does not have the mandate to investigate allegations against the Central forces. Thus, we have recommended that the competence of the SHRC should be expanded [in such a way as] to allow it to investigate all human rights violations and abuses in the State, including those allegedly committed by Central security forces. A specific recommendation to the Indian government in the report is that it “ensure independent, impartial and credible investigations into all unmarked graves in the State of Jammu and Kashmir as directed by the State Human Rights Commission; if necessary, seek assistance from the Government of India and /or the international community.”

How do you differentiate between the nature and extent of human rights violations in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir and India-administered Kashmir?

The human rights violations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are of a different calibre or magnitude and of a more structural nature. In addition, the restrictions on freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association limited the ability to obtain information about the situation there. The Pakistani authorities need to amend restrictive laws that stifle dissent and end the misuse of the anti-terror legislation to persecute those engaging in peaceful political and civil activities.

Our report also points to evidence that the armed groups that have operated in Jammu and Kashmir since the late 1980s have committed a wide range of human rights abuses, including kidnappings and killings of civilians and sexual violence. One of our recommendations to the government is that it investigate all cases of abuses committed by armed groups in Jammu and Kashmir, including the killings of minority Kashmiri Hindus since the late 1980s. Despite the government of Pakistan’s denial of any support for these groups, the report notes that a number of experts have concluded that Pakistan’s military continues to support their operations across the LoC.

The Indian government has called your report “fallacious, tendentious and motivated” and questioned “the intent in bringing out such a report”. It has also termed the report “a selective compilation of largely unverified information. It is overtly prejudiced and seeks to build a false narrative.” Your methodology has also been critiqued. What is your response?

If the member states are unhappy with the methodology of the report, they should help to set up a commission of inquiry and grant it unconditional access in order to verify and corroborate all allegations.

Why do you feel an international commission of inquiry is important for Kashmir?

A commission of inquiry would be an important step forward to look into events and serious allegations from a conflict that has raged for over 70 years.

Do you plan to work on more reports about the human rights situation in Kashmir?

My office and I have a mandate to monitor human rights across the world and to speak up for victims. We will continue to ask for access but if it is not granted, we will continue our remote monitoring of Kashmir.

What are the measures that both Pakistan and India could adopt in the short term to make life bearable for the citizens of both Jammu and Kashmir and so-called Azad Kashmir ?

India and Pakistan need to urgently stop shelling and firing across the LoC and working boundary to avoid harming civilians living along the border. Both sides should also ensure that all laws and their implementation meet their international human rights commitments. The 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. At the same time, accountability for human rights abuses and violations cannot be indefinitely suspended while we wait for a political solution. It is by adhering to human rights principles that tensions can be reduced and the ground prepared for a sustainable solution.