Geneva — The UN human rights chief on Thursday called for a major investigation into abuses in Kashmir, as his office released its first-ever report on violations committed by both India and Pakistan in the disputed territory.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said he would urge the UN Human Rights Council, which opens a new session next week, "to consider establishing a commission of onquiry (COI) to conduct a comprehensive, independent international investigation into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir".
A COI is one of the UN’s highest-level probes, generally reserved for major crises such as the Syrian conflict. The UN report, which is particularly critical of India, highlights "chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces". India’s foreign ministry rejected the report, blasting it as "fallacious" and "tendentious".
The findings, described as the first of its kind for Kashmir, come after months of deadly clashes along the border that divides Kashmir into zones of Indian and Pakistani control.
Zeid said he met with representatives of both governments following an upsurge of violence in July 2016, triggered by India’s killing of 22-year-rebel commander Burhan Wani. Concerned by what the UN termed "large and unprecedented" protests after Wani’s death, Zeid asked for "unconditional access" to Kashmir, but neither government agreed. His office then began remote monitoring of the region, producing a report covering alleged abuses between January 2016 and April of this year.
A kingdom divided
Kashmir has been divided since the end of British colonial rule in 1947 and both New Delhi and Islamabad claim the former Himalayan kingdom in full. India has about 500,000 soldiers in the part of Kashmir it controls, where armed groups are fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan.
The act has amounted to "virtual immunity" for troops in Kashmir, the UN said, noting that the government has not approved a single case against an armed forces member.
The findings accused Indian troops of being responsible for some 145 unlawful killings, far surpassing the 20 people estimated to have been killed by militant groups during that period. Zeid said India needed "to take immediate and effective steps to avoid a repetition of the numerous examples of excessive use of force by security forces in Kashmir".
The rights office raised particular concern over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in place in Indian-administered Kashmir since 1990, which prevents soldiers from facing prosecution without the consent of the central government. The act has amounted to "virtual immunity" for troops in Kashmir, the UN said, noting that the government has not approved a single case against an armed forces member. Zeid also called on India to ward off any further escalation in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Tensions have spiked there in recent weeks after police were accused of firing tear gas and shotgun pellets inside the city’s main mosque and two protesters died after being crushed by paramilitary vehicles. Amid fears of further unrest over the upcoming Eid holiday, the rights office urged Indian troops "to exercise maximum restraint ... when dealing with future protests, including ones that could well occur this coming weekend".
Turning to territory under Pakistan’s control, the report identified "a range of human rights abuses", but noted they "are of a different calibre or magnitude and of a more structural nature". The rights office criticised restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly that made it difficult to obtain information about conditions in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Pakistan should "end the misuse of anti-terror legislation to persecute those engaging in peaceful political and civil activities and those who express dissent," the report said. It cited claims from a local civil society group that hundreds of people have been detained under the anti-terrorism act and said the act has been used to target those who raise questions about basic rights.