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Military injustice: Both US and India 'left in the dark'

Both the US and India have failed to hold accountable military personnel who have committed human rights violations.

Last updated: 26 Aug 2014 15:35
Christine Mehta

Christine Mehta is a researcher with Amnesty International India, based in Bangalore.
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India is home to some of the world's longest-running insurgencies, writes Mehta [EPA]

The Indian armed forces enjoy high levels of support at home. Indians regularly speak of their army in glowing terms and express pride in their efforts to secure India and contribute to international peacekeeping efforts through the United Nations. 

While the Indian public and media often take other state agencies like the police, judiciary and the bureaucracy to task for alleged corruption, mismanagement or heavy-handedness, the army is seldom publicly criticised. The US army has similar support from its citizens, with 9 out of 10 Americans interviewed in a recent CNN survey expressing pride in the US military.

But in the case of both India and the US, the lack of media scrutiny of military operations has served to obscure the darker sides of conflict, including the serious abuses against civilians committed by soldiers and ignored by their superiors.

The US military has been engaged in counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan in a conflict that has captured world news headlines for 12 years. India is home to some of the world's longest running insurgencies, including the decades-old conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. Some insurgencies in the northeastern states of India have been running for nearly 70 years.

Yet despite differences in context and geography, the Indian and US security establishments have one thing in common: They fail to consistently hold their security forces accountable for serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings, rape and torture.

US war crimes in Afghanistan 

The Indian government is often defensive of its security forces' human rights record, claiming that the army has a "zero tolerance" policy for human rights violations and that any accusations of human rights violations against its personnel are an attempt to tarnish its image, and part of a foreign agenda. Partly, the government's attitude seems to stem from the belief that international human rights organizations fail to hold Western governments up to the same level of scrutiny they apply to developing countries.

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However organisations like Amnesty International and others have consistently raised concerns regarding military justice systems around the world, including in the United States. Earlier this month, Amnesty International condemned the US army and political establishment for failing to investigate or punish apparent war crimes in Afghanistan.

"Left in the Dark", a report released on 11 August, documents the deaths of 140 civilians, including 50 children, at the hands of the US army in Afghanistan, between 2009 and 2013.

In one case, 12 members of the army's 5th Stryker Combat Brigade were prosecuted for unlawfully killing three unarmed civilians in Kandahar province between January and May 2010. Using planted evidence, soldiers from the unit set up the incidents to look as if they had come under attack. 

The incidents only came to light after several members of the unit violently attacked another soldier in the same unit. Eleven of the twelve personnel were eventually convicted on various charges, and seven were sentenced to imprisonment ranging from seven months to life.

Reasons for failure to investigate or prosecute alleged crimes by US soldiers in Afghanistan include systemic flaws in the US military justice system, the political costs in the US of pursuing accountability, and unbalanced media coverage back home that rarely features testimonies from Afghan witnesses, victims or their families. The lack of Afghan witnesses' testimonies can leave victims faceless and less likely to be believed.

Those living in India's conflict-affected states can relate.

Ignoring human rights violations 

Like in the US, when it comes to conflict and national security, versions of events other than those of the army and the political establishment can be hard to find in India. Many sections of the Indian media routinely publish the government's official line, often without serious investigation into reported incidents. In Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, reports of killings by security forces often echo security forces' descriptions of the events as "infiltration bids foiled" or "militants killed" without further investigation.

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On April 27, 2010 army personnel reported that they had killed three "foreign militants" during a military operation in Machil, north Kashmir - a claim that was duly reported without further qualification by some media organisations. On further investigation, the state police found however that the three "militants" were in fact young Kashmiri civilians, and went on to charge eight security forces personnel, including a colonel and two majors, with murder.

Media interest in the case increased when the charges were filed, but quickly subsided after the military chose in early 2014 to try the men in a military court - which is closed to journalists - rather than a civilian court. Since then, there has been little media coverage on the progress of the case or on the effectiveness or transparency of the proceedings, despite the victims families' requests for the trial to be held in a civilian court.

In specific cases, it is true that some sections of the Indian media have sought the testimony of victims of human rights violations, particularly where cases have been under investigation for several years without resulting in prosecution. However, these testimonies have been dwarfed by the extensive coverage of politicians' opinions on militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, and the army's own version of its activities and operations. 

The Indian army routinely dismisses allegations of human rights violations, stating that they are "aimed at maligning the Army and embroiling it in legal tangles and provide ripe fodder for various human rights activists and separatist organizations to subvert the minds of the general population." On Human Rights Day last year, an army spokesperson said that less than 3 percent of over 1500 complaints of human rights violations by soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir received in the last two decades were "found to be true". But the army's unwillingness to share the details of its military justice proceedings is rarely questioned by most of the media.

Further, soldiers in areas where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is in force, are virtually immune from prosecution in civilian courts, since these require permission from the central government which is virtually never granted. Yet the fact that authorities have not allowed the independent prosecution of several grave human rights violations is not extensively reported.

Like the US military in Afghanistan, the Indian army reveals little information about how it investigates allegations of human rights violations. The military justice system in India too is deeply flawed, and is not independent or transparent. The results of court-martial proceedings in India are almost never made public, not even to victims or their families.

Authorities in both India and the US need to acknowledge the crimes that their security forces have committed, and actively pursue justice for victims. Leaving a legacy of unaddressed abuses will only result in impunity, instability, and the alienation of the people that these armies are charged with protecting.

Christine Mehta is a researcher with Amnesty International India, based in Bangalore. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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