Repeal AFSPA, PSA from Kashmir and North East: UN Special Rapporteur

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Photo: Ankit Agrawal
Photo: Ankit Agrawal

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Rashida Manjoo on Wednesday appealed India to repeal the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA) from Jammu and Kashmir and the north-east states saying that “the acts violate international laws India has signed and ratified”.

“It’s not a demand but a request to think how this law (AFSPA) is being implemented and how it leads to human rights violations,” Manjoo said in a press conference here in New Delhi.

The UN Special Rapporteur, who visited almost eight states and met delegations from other states to assess the situation on violence against women, its causes and consequences  said, “The AFSPA (existing in the north-east states), the AF(J&K)SPA and the PSA has mostly resulted in impunity for human rights violations broadly, according to information received.”

“The law protects the armed forces from effective prosecution in non-military courts for human rights violations committed against civilian women among others, and it allows for the overriding of due process rights,” she said, adding “In testimonies received, it was clear that the interpretation and implementation of this Act, is eroding fundamental rights and freedoms – including freedom of movement, association and peaceful assembly, safety and security, dignity and bodily integrity rights, for women, in J&K and in the north-eastern states. Unfortunately in the interest of state security, peaceful and legitimate protests often elicit a military response, which is resulting in both a culture of fear and of resistance within these societies.”

In Manipur, Manjoo said she heard anguished stories from relatives of young women who have disappeared without trace or who were found dead shortly after going missing.

“The lack of response from the police is the norm in such cases, with the attitude being that these are mostly elopement cases. I am deeply concerned about other consequences of such disappearances of young women, including exposure to sexual abuse, exploitation or trafficking,” she added.

On 28 April, Manjoo broke down and wept in conflict-torn Manipur when she met the frail mother of Manorama Thangjam, who was arrested, raped and shot dead allegedly by some personnel of the 17 Assam Rifles on 11 July, 2004.

As many as 40 separate depositions were made during the meeting, unarguably the largest one ever convened by any UN’s Special Rapporteur, as part of the 10-day long official mission to India from 22 April to 1 May.

Expressing shock that the new legislative measures to check growing violence against women in India do not fully reflect the Justice Verma Committee’s recommendations, the UN Special Rapporteur said, “It is unfortunate that the opportunity to establish a substantive and specific equality and non-discrimination rights legislative framework to protect women against all forms of violence was lost.”

Asked about her meeting with several women groups she said, “One interlocutor described violence against women and girls as functioning on a continuum that spans the life-cycle from the womb to the tomb.”

“I was also told that the Sati system (an ancient Indian tradition of the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) still continues in some areas,” she said. “In India, women from the Dalit, Adivasi, other Scheduled castes, tribal and indigenous minorities, are often victims of multiple forms of discrimination and violence. Despite protective legislative and affirmative action, laws and policies, their reality is one where they exist at the bottom of the political, economic and social system,” she added.

Manjoo, who began her India visit on 22 April, said the discrepancy between the provisions of the laws and the effective implementation was a recurrent complaint which she heard.

“Sometimes mediation and compensation measures are often used as redress mechanisms to address cases of violence against women, thus eroding accountability imperatives, and further fostering norms of impunity.”

About the increase in sexual violence which has not only outraged India but also plunged tourism in the country, she said, “There is a general sense of insecurity in public spaces, amenities, and transport facilities in particular, and women are often victims of different forms of sexual harassment and assault.”

Manjoo said customary and religious practices such as child marriages and dowry-related practices, sorcery, honour killings, witch-hunting of women, Sati system and communal violence perpetrated against cultural and religious minorities, were highlighted in numerous testimonies.”

About the communal violence, she said indiscriminate attacks by religious majorities on religious minorities, including Christian and Muslim minorities, is frequently explained away by implying that equal aggression was noted on both sides.

“Also, such violence is sometimes labelled as ‘riots’, thereby denying the lack of security for religious and other minorities, and disregarding their right to equal citizenship. This issue is of particular concern to many, as the wounds of the past are still fresh for women who were beaten, stripped naked, burnt, raped and killed because of their religious identity, in the Gujarat massacre of 2002,” she added.

Expressing dismay over the declining female sex ratio in India, Manjoo said despite the inclusion of beneficial provisions for women and children in the Five Year Plan, the impact of economic development policies on women is resulting in forced evictions, landlessness, threat to livelihoods, environmental degradation, and the violation of bodily integrity rights, among other violations.

Manjo also insisted that legislative and policy approach would not bring about substantive change “if it is not implemented within a holistic approach that simultaneously targets the empowerment of women, social transformation, and the provision of remedies that ultimately address the continuum of discrimination and violence, and also the pervasive culture of impunity.”

Manjoo, who comes from South Africa, was appointed Special Rapporteur on Violence against women in June 2009 by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The comprehensive findings on the India visit will be discussed in the report she will present to the UNHRC in June 2014.