In his final months in office as United Nations high commissioner for human rights, the outspoken Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein did what no former holder of that office would or could do: he issued a blistering report on Indian abuses in the disputed territory of Kashmir. It is a story that Indian governments have long tried to keep out of sight internationally.
The report, the first of its kind, also covered Pakistani violations on its side of the “line of control,” as the de facto border is known. The violations were described as being of a much lesser magnitude and fundamentally different than the Indian abuses. The main thrust of the report focused almost entirely on the severe repression employed by the occupation force of hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and other security forces against a majority Muslim population in the Kashmir Valley and its environs.
India’s longstanding view, expressed again in a harsh rebuttal to Zeid when the report was published in mid-June, has been that the UN has no mediating role to play in Kashmir; and moreover, that Pakistan illegally possesses part of the territory. The official government statement said: “India rejects the report. It is fallacious, tendentious and motivated. We question the intent in bringing out such a report.”
An Indian government spokesperson termed the findings “prejudiced” and a violation of India’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Nevertheless, the report of the high commissioner for human rights, whose term expired Aug. 31, is now an official UN document, and people in the UN Secretariat and diplomatic corps have noted that Secretary-General António Guterres is standing behind it. (Zeid has been succeeded by Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile.)
The high commissioner’s report states without obfuscation that only a Security Council resolution will allow the UN to withdraw a mandated monitoring mission from the region, where it has been based since 1949. The mission, the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan, is known by its acronym Unmogip.
India has argued for half a century that the UN, especially the Security Council, lost all jurisdiction since Indian talks with Pakistan were held in the early 1970s in the Indian Himalayan hill station of Simla. “The Government of India has since claimed that the Simla Agreement made all previous Security Council resolutions redundant,” Zeid’s report noted.
The UN begs to differ. “The United Nations Secretary-General’s position has been that UNMOGIP can only be terminated by a decision of the Security Council; as such decision has not been taken, UNMOGIP has continued to operate,” Zeid’s report said.
Kashmir is already under some renewed discussion at the UN as the Security Council and Department of Peacekeeping Operations consider the future of the infinitesimally small and circumscribed UN monitoring mission there. The Trump administration, seeking cuts to the UN’s peacekeeping budget, has also targeted other small “legacy” missions such as Cyprus and Western Sahara.
These missions, which appear to budget-cutters as failing to make enough political progress, have been consistently criticized for years by John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser and a former US ambassador to the UN. The current ambassador, Nikki Haley, has been canvassing opinion for a year around the UN on whether to end the Kashmir mission, an envoy told PassBlue. So far, no decisions have been made. The mission’s budget was renewed in December for 2018-2019.
By cutting at least some peacekeeping missions, the UN could lose international reach, or bases of operation, however small. And it could lose close proximity to governments with which it may have issues.
On Sept. 6, high-level US-Indian talks will begin in Delhi between the American secretaries of state and defense, Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis, and their Indian counterparts, Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman. Kashmir is not on the formal agenda. The focus is on an Indian Ocean-Pacific strategic cooperation plan developed partly to counter China’s outreach.
“The dialogue is an indication of the deepening strategic partnership between our two countries, and India’s emergence as a net security provider in the region,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, told reporters on Aug. 30.
In April this year, the Security Council’s military staff committee, comprising military advisers from the five permanent Council members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — went to the Kashmir region to try to observe the work of the mission.
The group of experts was denied visas by India, effectively barring them from the country, which apparently surprised Haley, a politician of Indian heritage who has been building close ties to the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, continuing American pro-India policies dating to the Bill Clinton administration. (Haley visited India in late June.)
The UN military team was able to visit the Pakistan side, however, which comprises the regions of Azad (Free) Kashmir, as well as mountainous Gilgit and Baltistan. The UN team wrote an internal report including both the Indian and Pakistani sides, which was submitted to the Council. There has been no action on it so far.
The Kashmir observer group is the UN’s only monitoring foothold in India, where there has been sporadic conflict for decades. The multinational mission is based from May to October in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital on the India-administered side, and from November to April in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. It has 42 military experts and 72 civilians operating on a biennial budget of about $21 million. Since July 2018, the mission has been commanded by Maj. Gen. José Eladio Alcaín of Uruguay.
If the UN military advisers had not been denied entry to Indian-administered Kashmir, they could have seen the constraints under which the monitoring group works, which are well documented in the UN peacekeeping department and in media reports. The observers may not travel freely around the area without Indian escorts. They are told not to mix with local civilian groups and they receive minimal, grudging support from an Indian liaison officer.
The UN human-rights reporting team for the Zeid survey had also been denied access to Indian as well as Pakistani-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. The denial of access to not only expert observers but also to media and human-rights groups from outside Kashmir, does not help itself or the Kashmiris, wrote Paula Newberg in a prescient 1995 study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, titled “Double Betrayal: Repression and Insurgency in Kashmir.” (She is now a regional academic specialist at the University of Texas at Austin.)
“By refusing to allow serious, dispassionate, professional investigations of rights abuse, the Indian government has prohibited minimal rights guarantees and has thus politicized the war well beyond its original intentions,” Newberg wrote. “Its refusal has given Kashmiris additional reason to distrust the government’s motives and goals.”
Jammu and Kashmir was once a unified semiautonomous “princely state” ruled by a maharajah until the departing British divided its Indian empire in 1947, when Pakistan was created for Muslims, leaving India dominated by Hindus. Sporadic fighting between Pakistan and India soon began, as did an independence movement among Kashmiris on the Indian side that rejected absorption into India. The Indians argue, with some justification, that the separatists have been sustained by Pakistani support.
A new generation of Kashmiri youth, heirs of a struggle that began in its current form in 1988-1989, are discovering the lure of rebellious public protests and calls for self-determination. It is a situation that a former military unit commander in the region, retired-Lieut. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain, says is not being smartly addressed. In an article in the Indian newspaper the Deccan Chronicle on Aug. 28, he wrote that radicalization of the young opens the way to more meddling by the Pakistani “Deep State.”
“There have been successful efforts by the clergy to message the youth on the needs to remain moderate in outlook and follow the traditional path of faith in the Valley,” General Hasnain wrote. “These efforts must multiply manifold and social media platforms should be provided for these. Attempts to run such programs from New Delhi must be curbed. . . .There is nothing like giving local colour to the communication efforts with youth.”
The Zeid human-rights report, covering events from July 2016 — when the latest wave of protests erupted — to April 2018, appeared just as India was in the international news for a proposed plan to deport at least four million Bengali Muslims from the state of Assam. The Kashmir survey by the UN, which charges the Indian government of violating various international conventions that it has signed, is painful and unequivocal in its findings.
“Civil society estimates are that 130 to 145 civilians were killed by security forces between mid-July 2016 and end of March 2018, and 16 to 20 civilians were killed by armed groups in the same period,” the report said of its findings on the Indian side. “One of most dangerous weapons used against protesters during the unrest in 2016 was the pellet-firing shotgun, which is a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun that fires metal pellets.”
It added, “Impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice are key human rights challenges.”
The report describes the arrests of minors, attacks on medical services, “days long” curfews, frequent mobile and Internet blockages and “restrictions on freedom of expression, targeting media and journalists.” Education has been disrupted. Over time, thousands of Kashmiris have disappeared and mass graves have been discovered. Sexual crimes by Indian security forces have been reported and often denied, despite ample available evidence.
Numerous questions remain about how the relationship of the UN with the Modi government will develop. Having vented its anger at the Zeid report, will India attempt to end the Kashmir monitoring mandate? And how will it relate to the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, which took power in Pakistan in late July, promising to make positive talks with India on Kashmir a high priority? Modi, however, faces a general election next year and will be preoccupied with avoiding a loss or serious setback.
Angshuman Choudhury of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi wrote in an email to PassBlue that the lack of action on the Zeid report in the UN system indicates that pressure on India is unlikely, given that the UN observer mission is constrained and has little influence on Indian activities in Kashmir.
“So I am not sure if New Delhi would choose to expend any significant diplomatic capital at this moment in further downsizing it,” Choudhury wrote, adding that “the Trump administration’s overall disdain for the UN’s human rights regime coheres with the Narendra Modi government’s straight-out dismissal of any external human rights-oriented commentary on the Kashmir conflict, especially from the UN.”
Choudhury wrote that the issue is not likely to come up in the Security Council because not only the US but also China and Russia “would not be very interested in bringing the matter up at the cost of damaging relations with the Modi government — a lateral outcome of New Delhi’s meticulous diplomacy with key global powers over the past three years.
“At the General Assembly, however, a few countries (primarily Pakistan) might bring up the issue. But, given the forum’s limited legal mandate on (seemingly) bilateral disputes, one cannot expect theatrical outcomes. Moreover, the largely reconciliatory position offered by newly-appointed Pakistan PM, Imran Khan, on India (and Kashmir) might amount to lesser verbal belligerence from Pakistani diplomats at the UN compared to previous years.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.