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Indian army reportedly uses white phosphorus in Kashmir

On May 6th, Indian army made use of white phosphorus during a military operation in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district against alleged pro-freedom armed fighters. 

Locals maintain that white phosphorus was used as the bodies recovered from the site were completely “charred” to death. The bodies of three Kashmiris were found charred, two of them alleged to be pro-freedom armed fighters and one of them confirmed an unarmed civilian. The phosphorus attack burnt down multiple houses.

It is important to note here that white phosphorus is a very lethal substance and its use is proscribed and banned in civilian zones under International Law, especially the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons (UNCCW). Its use, possession, and procurement is also deemed unlawful by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). India is a signatory to both UNCCW and CWC, yet it flagrantly violates them in Kashmir with impunity. 

This is not the first time India deployed white phosphorus during its military operations in civilian zones. In 2017, it was similarly accused of using it in Pulwama area of Kashmir, after five houses were burnt down and the body recovered in the debris of the destroyed houses was completely charred. The bodies were extensively burnt beyond recognition.

The bodies are charred as white phosphorus burns human skin and dissolves tissues deep inside the body. A Kashmiri living in the area where it was deployed told us that his mother, a patient of asthma, has suffered a lot due to the inhalation of the smoke of white phosphorus. Its smoke is known to cause long-term respiratory problems. 

Leading up to the operation, the Indian army also arbitrarily detained dozens of Kashmiris in the area and also in the surrounding villages. Media has not been allowed to report on the incident, a part of India’s systemic silencing of the free press in Kashmir. 

No independent investigation is allowed by India in such occurrences, with acts like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) granting the Indian army complete liberty in killing Kashmiris with impunity.

The AFSPA gives the Indian armed forces wide powers to shoot to kill, arrest on a flimsy pretext, and conduct warrantless searches. With these special powers, Indian soldiers have raped, tortured, “disappeared,” and killed Kashmiris for decades without fear of being held accountable. The Act violates provisions of international human rights law, including the right to life, the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest and detention, and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. 

For example, Indian soldiers in a locality, known as Handwara, shot at a group playing cricket, suspecting that a militant was among them, and killed four boys, including an eight-year-old kid. The Indian army itself accepts that the extraordinary powers that AFSPA grants them has led to “mistakes.” For example, the army described as “error of judgment” the killing of three teenage boys in Kupwara who had sneaked away to smoke a cigarette at night and were shot dead without warning by Indian troops. The right to life is central to major international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which India has ratified. Similarly, Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of August 12,1949 strongly proscribes the killing of any non-combatant. 

Such incidents have been extremely commonplace since the 1990s. Section 7 of AFSPA 1990 prohibits the prosecution of security forces personnel unless the Government of India grants prior permission to prosecute. This has resulted in virtual impunity for security forces against prosecution for any human rights violation. In the nearly three decades that the law has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir, there has not been a single prosecution of armed forces personnel granted by the central government.

During India’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN in 2008, 2012, and 2017, several United Nations Member States recommended that India repeal or revise the AFSPA. However, in March 2018, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs told the Indian Parliament that there was no proposal to repeal or amend AFSPA in Jammu and Kashmir. It is still in force and according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, AFSPA grants far-reaching powers to soldiers that violate the right to life and legitimizes excessive use of force.

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