India’s prominence in the world continues to grow due to its growing economy and its geostrategic ability to counterbalance China. Such realpolitik considerations have led the international community to brush aside concerns of growing religious intolerance, ultra-nationalism, inequitable growth and state-backed violence across India. It was thus surprising to see the UN’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) issue its first-ever report on the situation in Kashmir.
Aiming to be impartial, the OHCHR report documents the human rights situation on both Indian-Administered and Pakistani-Administered Kashmir. The report highlights the deteriorating situation in Jammu and Kashmir under Indian control, especially the mass protests which erupted after the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016. It catalogues the brutal use of pellet-firing shotguns against protestors. It points to the impunity Indian security forces enjoy despite enforced disappearances and use of sexual violence. It also highlights the lack of access to justice to the victims of blatant human rights violations.
The report discusses the toll of repeated skirmishes along the LoC on ordinary citizens living in proximity of this area. It notes the presence of armed groups in Jammu and Kashmir since the late 1980s, which have also committed a wide range of human rights abuses, with suspected Pakistani backing.
While the bulk of the OHCHR report focuses on Indian violations in Jammu and Kashmir, a smaller section of it also identifies problems on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, with a caveat that infringements of the Pakistani side are of a different magnitude and calibre. It identifies “restrictions on freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association” in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B). It points to the “problematic lack of autonomy” of these two “distinct territories”.
The report calls on India to urgently repeal draconian laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and to establish independent, impartial and credible investigations to inquire into all civilian killings, and to provide compensation and rehabilitation for all those impacted by so-called ‘security operations’. Conversely, the report urges Pakistan to end “the misuse of anti-terror legislation to persecute dissenters, to end the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community in G-B and AJK, and to allow greater autonomy to both”.
Our former UN ambassador, in a recent op-ed, recognised how this first-ever UN human rights report on Kashmir is an important step. The report’s recommendation to establish an international commission to conduct a comprehensive and independent investigation into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir is also salient.
While India has rejected the findings of the OHCHR report, Pakistan could use the findings of this high-profile report to seek support for a host of measures to curb human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. The report’s findings can give a boost to demanding the prosecution of India’s security force officials under international conventions; advocating for the need of a UN resolution challenging the legality of India’s emergency laws in IHK; and for demanding that international humanitarian organisations be given access to Kashmiri political prisoners.
Islamabad does, however, need to rethink its own behaviour. Prior to writing the above report, the UN’s Human Rights Office kept trying for two years to get access to both sides of Kashmir. It then had to settle for remote monitoring and assessment of the situation. Pakistan could have allowed the UN access to its side of Kashmir, instead of waiting for India to do so first. Pakistan still has a chance to seriously examine how it can address the OHCHR recommendations for its side of the LoC, which would be beneficial on its own, besides giving more legitimacy to Pakistani efforts to compel India to improve its human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir.