The Indian Supreme Court’s recent decision reiterating the importance of accountability for human rights violations by police and security forces, in particular where unnecessary or excessive force is alleged to have been used, is a welcome step and must be immediately implemented.
In the case of EEVFAM v Union of India, petitioners alleged that 1,528 killings by the police and security forces in the Indian state of Manipur had amounted to unlawful extrajudicial executions. Manipur is the site of a long-running armed insurgency.
In 2013, a court-appointed commission – the Santosh Hegde Commission – conducted an inquiry into six of the cases mentioned in the petition, and found all the six killings to be unlawful.
“This judgment is a strong signal from the Court that human rights violations by security forces will not be tolerated in the name of national security or anti-terror policies,” said Sam Zarifi, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Asia Director.
“It’s crucial for the government now to follow through on this ruling to bring the families of the victims of these and other extra judicial executions mentioned in this petition closer to truth, justice and accountability”.
The killings mentioned in the petition all took place in areas considered “disturbed” under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Once an area is declared “disturbed” under the AFSPA, armed forces are given a range of “special powers”, which include the power to arrest without warrant, to enter and search any premises, and in certain circumstances, use force, to cause death.
Under the AFSPA, governmental permission, or sanction, is required before any member of the armed forces can be prosecuted for crimes in a civilian court, thus effectively shielding armed forces from accountability for human rights violations.
“These, and other allegations, of human rights violations under the AFSPA only reiterate the urgent need to repeal this draconian and undemocratic law,” Zarifi said. “The allegations in this case are evidence of the culture of impunity that the AFSPA has perpetuated”.
In the present judgment, the Supreme Court made some welcome observations:
- It emphasized the need for accountability for human rights violations by security forces, reiterating the principles laid down in previous landmark cases. It said “every death caused by the armed forces, including in the disturbed area of Manipur should be thoroughly enquired into if there is a complaint or allegation of abuse or misuse of power”.
- It dismissed the government’s argument that legal safeguards would not fully apply to anyone considered an “enemy” under Indian law. The Court held that at least all Indian citizens were equally entitled to the enjoyment of the fundamental rights in the Constitution, stating “If members of our armed forces are deployed and employed to kill citizens of our country on the mere allegation or suspicion that they are ‘enemy’, not only the rule of law but our democracy would be in grave danger”.
- It noted that it did not have sufficient information about each of the 1,528 cases mentioned in the petition. It has directed parties to present detailed information about the status of each case.
“This judgment references India’s obligations under international human rights law, which requires the government to respect and protect the right to life and ensure access to effective remedies,” Zarifi said. “Accountability for all human rights violations is a key aspect of these rights”.
The ICJ called for independent, impartial and thorough investigations into all the cases mentioned in the petition, in line with international standards.
It said that persons responsible should be brought to justice in fair trials in civilian courts, and the family of victims should be accorded an effective remedy and reparation for any violations.
The ICJ will continue to follow the case, which will continue in four weeks. Several key issues remain to be addressed, which the court will look at in subsequent hearings.
First, how should the specific cases be investigated? The petitioners have asked for the constitution of a Special Investigation Team, comprising police officers from outside the state of Manipur, to investigate the allegations, to ensure that the enquiry is fair, independent and thorough.
Second, in what forum should trials take place? The Indian Army Act allows for army personnel on active duty to be tried by a court martial (military court) instead of a civilian court for all offences, including gross human rights violations.
International standards call for military personnel accused of gross human rights violations to be put on trial before a civilian court. The Court has left this question open for the allegations in the present petition, stating: “The law is therefore very clear that if an offence is committed even by Army personnel, there is no concept of absolute immunity from trial by the criminal court”.
Third, the Court will also consider the efficacy of the National Human Rights Commission; in particular whether its guidelines are binding or only advisory. Under Indian law, the NHRC has limited jurisdiction where human rights violations by the armed forces are concerned.
Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director (Bangkok), t: +66 807819002; e:sam.zarifi(a)icj.orgNewsWeb stories