‘End impunity, hold troops accountable for violations, and repeal AFSPA’
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an international human rights organization that defends the rights of people in 90 countries worldwide, spotlighting abuses and bringing perpetrators to justice. HRW has over the past several decades of work in India produced reports on abuses linked to conflict in the northeast, the Maoist insurgency, and in Jammu and Kashmir.
In an interview with Majid Maqbool, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, while calling for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and other laws that provide immunity from prosecution, says the way "to persuade people to believe in rule of law is for the state to set an example by first and foremost, holding itself accountable."
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is of great concern. There appears to be a complete breakdown in public order. Violent street protests have led to severe restrictions on free movement, people are unable to access fresh supplies of food and other essentials, businesses and education are at a standstill, many are unable to visit medical and other critical facilities. There are serious allegations of human rights violations.
There is so much anger; everyone seems to have forgotten basic human rights. Children are carrying stones instead of books. They are angry with the leadership, who seem unwilling to address their grievances, and then vent their ire by wrongfully engaging in violent protests.
While the state has a responsibility to contain violent protests, the tendency to be heavy handed will only exacerbate a situation where emotions are running high. It will only make the young protesters more defiant. There has clearly been excessive and indiscriminate use of force leading to scores of fatalities and hundreds of injuries. There are repeated allegations about abusive and rough treatment by security officials deployed on the streets.
It is crucial for organizers to call for peaceful protests. It is particularly worrying to hear accounts of children being placed at risk during violent demonstrations. But it is for the state to ensure that there is proportionate use of force.
There are also reports that troops have once again been deployed in schools. This has to be a short term measure. In addition to endangering student and teacher safety, the military use of schools also hinders children's access to education and lowers the quality of their studies. Human Rights Watch has documented around the world that turning classrooms into barracks leads to disruptions to studies, lower school enrollment, decreased school attendance, and damage to school infrastructure.
Weapons, by their very nature, are lethal. We have witnessed similar injuries during other protests, whether in Bahrain or Bangladesh. Authorities argue that when the situation is tense, and security personnel targeted in attacks, they act in self-defence once outnumbered.
Throwing rocks at security forces, or punishing local police officials who reside in the community, is serious and protest organizers should dissuade such action. But it is no excuse for the state to use indiscriminate or excessive force. The state should ensure that use of force do not violate domestic and international guidelines. There are repeated allegations that riot-control guns which fire pellets instead of live ammunition were not used properly, leading to severe injuries, even deaths. Even uninvolved bystanders were injured.
Security forces have also suffered injuries. But pleading troop morale when each casualty causes further public anger is not a solution. Security forces must be given proper protective gear, and also instructed to act in a right respecting manner. Those responsible for violations should know that they will be held to account, not protected from prosecution after internal inquiries that are considered neither transparent nor fair.
It has taken weeks for the government to inquire into the excessive use of force during the protests. It is to the credit of journalists who kept reporting the injuries, including permanent visual disabilities, to ensure that the authorities pay attention.
The government should also issue strict orders to prevent arbitrary arrests and torture in custody, a problem we have documented in the past. Children should only be interrogated in the presence of parents or lawyers.
The government should be investigating each incident where ammunition, even pellets, were used, to determine if the use of force was proportionate. The government insists that it has ordered maximum restraint. If those orders are disobeyed, or there are violations of procedure, troops have to be held to account. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms say that law enforcement officials should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. In cases of death or serious injury, appropriate agencies are to conduct a review and a detailed report is to be sent promptly to the competent administrative or prosecutorial authorities.
Unfortunately, the state response to peaceful protests has also been disappointing. Peaceful dissent is being met with allegations of sedition or anti-nationalism.
It is important that peaceful voices of dissent and criticism receive a fair hearing. That is the way to address discontent, so that people are assured that they will get justice. We are witnessing an odd dichotomy where on the one hand there is vigilante violence in the name of cow protection or nationalism, and yet peaceful protest is stigmatised.
We have found that in any conflict situation, failure to ensure justice feeds the cycle of violence. Many young Kashmiris say they want to opt for militancy to avenge injustice, whether it is rough treatment from troops, or arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and killings. For too long, inquiries are ordered, but we see no outcome. De facto impunity prevails. It is for this reason we have been calling for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other laws that provide immunity from prosecution.
Security forces often have to operate in dangerous situations. But when authorities protect members of security forces that torture, or kill unarmed innocents and falsely claim that they were killed in an armed exchange, they are actually disregarding others that do their job in a rights respecting manner. Impunity leads to victims and communities losing faith in rule of law and justice. It has reached a point where Kashmiris often disbelieve any account of an armed encounter, convinced that they were faked. Rumours have gained credence, fuelling the violence.
What will help is for the government to announce the implementation of the Reddy commission report and other expert findings that recommended repeal of AFSPA, order sanction to prosecute those that are responsible for human rights violations, enforce recommendations from various committees to address long term grievances. There are still families awaiting news of their loved ones that disappeared. The State Human Rights Commission had ordered an investigation into the unmarked graves to see if those that disappeared were also buried in such graves as unidentified foreign militants. That is still pending. The way to persuade people to believe in rule of law is for the state to set an example by first and foremost, holding itself accountable.
Human Rights Watch works in over 90 countries. In 2006, we produced twin reports documenting abuses in both Indian and Pakistan held portions Kashmir. We have repeatedly called for an end to human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, including during protests. We have also recommended that the government end its pattern of impunity, hold troops accountable for violations, and repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.