My talk at the forum on “Kashmir and peace in South Asia” held at the NSW parliament on 24 October.
Tonight’s forum is most important. I see this event as the renewing of our efforts to stand with the people of Kashmir – for their right to self determination; for families to be reunited; for the violence to end. Peace with justice must be restored in Kashmir and across south Asia.
I recognise that since the end of British colonialism many people have spoken out for the rights of Kashmir and Jammu. Now we need to build strong, united, international solidarity to amplify the voice of Kashmir.
Tonight I would like to share with you my experiences on my recent visit to Kashmir and Pakistan and consider the opportunities for peace with justice.
First off I wish to emphasise why I link those two words, peace and justice. We often see rulers and oppressors talk only of peace with the subtext being that power relations will not change.
Calling for peace alone has little meaning if the people of Kashmir and Jammu cannot decide their own future.
Last month I was fortunate to visit this region. It was most informative and has motivated me to work closely with people in Australia and around the world for the rights of the people of Kashmir and Jammu.
I will come back to some suggestions on how we do that. First off some comments on my visit.
I had the opportunity to meet local residents in Azad Kashmir, to visit refugee camps, the homes of refugees and their places of work. I met a number of government leaders and members of non-government organisations in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir.
In Pakistan I met with the foreign minister, the human rights minister, and various NGOs and representatives of the Jammu Kashmir Awami Workers Party. My meeting with the Youth Forum for Kashmir was informative and most inspiring. I also had a very moving visit to the home of Mushal Mullick, the wife of Kashiri gaoled leader Yasin Malik.
As you can imagine the information relayed to me was intense – many stories of unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, sexual abuse, families divided.
There was also the inspiring stories of people’s collective actions for a peaceful and just future for Kashmir and much hope that the UN human rights report on this region will provide a pathway out of the decades of abuse and neglect that the people of this region are forced to live with.
I share that hope.
The UN report – its official title is “Report on the situation of human rights in Kashmir” – sets out the stark dimensions of the Kashmir conflict and puts forward a set of recommendations for India, another set for Pakistan and then a common set of recommendations.
I believe this report does provide a unique opportunity to elevate the struggle for peace and justice in Kashmir and Jammu onto the world stage and for there to be a positive outcome for the people of that region, if there is a positive response to the recommendations.
The 49-page report reveals that millions have suffered human rights abuses.
The report notes that up to 145 civilians were killed by security forces between mid-July 2016 and the end of March 2018. Tragically, rape and sexual violence remain weapons of the occupying forces.
Kashmiri women have been largely absent from narratives about this region. The gendered violence that results in thousands of widows, single parent families and women led households heightens women’s feelings of vulnerability, financial insecurity and emotional trauma and stress.
A heartening aspect of the UN report is the author’s intent that the personal toll behind the statistical analysis must be addressed. In June when the report was released the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called for compensation for the victims, as well as an end to the violence and accountability for past and current violations.
The starting point to achieve the Report’s momentous recommendations is setting up a Committee of Inquiry “to conduct a comprehensive independent international investigation into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir”.
When I met with the Pakistan Foreign Minister he said his government is ready to cooperate with the UN proposals – that means with the recommendations directed to Pakistan and most importantly cooperating with the UN setting up this independent investigation that would enter the disputed territories.
The Report sets out 17 and seven recommendations respectively for the Indian and Pakistan governments to act on.
While Pakistan was named as an abuser of human rights, the Report notes they “are of a different calibre or magnitude and of a more structural nature”.
In drawing out this distinction my intent is not to fly a flag for Pakistan, but to put a spotlight on the need for western countries like Australia to consider how they deal with the Indian government so it becomes harder for our Indian Ocean neighbour to maintain a rogue response in the face of this important UN report.
Currently the Indian government is hostile to the report and its recommendations. The Indian Ministry for External Affairs has said the Report “is fallacious, tendentious and motivated”. They even questioned why such a report was even released.
The report was released on June 14. It is important we remember what happened eight days later. On June 22 the Indian government barred foreign journalists from travelling anywhere in Kashmir without prior permission.
In considering the future of Kashmir we need to discuss what is happening in India. I find the situation under Prime Minister Modi very troubling and not just because of the growing inequality and hardships millions of Indians face.
I note that more commentators are reporting on the disturbing actions of Modi’s party and the Hindu nationalists who are using a range of tactics, some illegal, to eliminate what they deem to be ‘anti-national’ thought and activities. This is having a chilling effect on Indian civil society and independent media coverage.
Then there is the worrying closeness in the relationship between the Indian and Israeli prime ministers. The India government’s policy shift towards Israel is considerable. India buys 41 per cent of Israel’s total arms exports. Israeli army delegations have visited the Kashmir region to promote its weaponry for crowd control and surveillance and to share its expertise in fighting Palestinians with the Indian armed forces.
And then there is the sinister development of Israeli-style settlements for Hindus in Kashmir – clearly a means to occupy Kashmiri land.
Many western governments, including Australia, are muting their criticism of India because they do not want to jeopardise trade opportunities with this nation of 1.35 billion. Sadly many nations have a history of putting their own interests before the human rights of oppressed communities.
So in terms of India’s approach to Kashmir it is hard to find any good news. India has banned media coverage and it has rejected the UN report and recommendations.
The chance of pressure from western countries in support of the UN report is still unknown. It is important that we push the Australian government as our country not only has historic links with the Kashmir region but we are currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council. The UN report and how its recommendations will be managed should be a regular Council agenda item, and Australia should ensure that happens.
Surely the Australian government should lobby the Indian government to lift the ban on foreign journalists and to support the important Committee of Inquiry going ahead. We also need to do everything to facilitate the independent investigation having free access within Indian Occupied Kashmir in the same way that Pakistan has agreed to.
While my suggestions about actions the Australian government should take are logical we know that logic is not the driver of foreign affairs decisions.
So while we need to find organisations and sympathetic politicians to put pressure on the Australian government I would like to suggest that our priority has to be mobilising public opinion in support of the people of Kashmir and Jammu.
We need to face the fact that this is one of the most ignored and least reported on oppressed regions and international flash points there is.
I grew up with the campaigns to end the war in Vietnam and apartheid in South Africa. What played a crucial role in contributing to the people of those nations being able to determine their own future was the actions of people in other lands. I have heard Vietnamese leaders and Nelson Mandela speak most warmly of the role international solidarity played in their own struggles.
There is support for the people of Kashmir and Jammu in many countries. I hope that we can link up and build a global voice for the people of this region. We have a great opportunity with this UN report.
Before I finish up I would like to speak about the armed struggle in Kashmir. In making these comments I wish to emphasise that I am not promoting armed struggle. However, we must note that the Kashmiris, like the Palestinians, like the Aborigines in Australia, like Jewish people who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto, like the people who fought in the French revolution have the legal right to resist occupation.
This is a legal right set out in the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and the Fourth Geneva Convention and its subsequent protocols. The United Nations resolution 37/43, dated 3 December 1982, sets out this right.
Again I emphasise I am not advocating armed struggle. But it is a legal right. In the last few days more people have been killed in Kashmir. I was given the alarming figures that there are more than 250,000 Indian soldiers , border guards and police who together out number the militants 1000 to one.
The way to end the tragic deaths and ongoing violence – when I visited the Line of Control a Pakistan military officer told me that there are more than 1000 military incidents a year along this disputed border – the way to end the violence and the deaths of so many young people is to provide hope for all generations that peace and justice can be achieved and their human rights restored. Until we achieve that hope I fear that more young people will be killed fighting for what is their right.
The former UN Human Rights head, Al Hussein, had the courage to initiate this Report on Kashmir. Now is the time to finish the job, to show similar courage and to take a stand for Kashmiri human rights and to end violence in this region.
* Lee Rhiannon is a former Senator in the Australian federal parliament and a former MP in the NSW parliament.