Two high-level United Nations experts on human rights have denounced the recent move by the Indian government to ban social media and mobile data services in Indian-administered Kashmir, the long-disputed northern region of the Indian subcontinent.
The condemning statements were made on Thursday by two UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights, in a news release from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), calling the ban a form of “collective punishment” that has a “disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir.” The experts, David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, also urged Indian officials to remove the restrictions.
This weeks’ statements by UN officials are not the first condemnation by the UN and its affiliates of internet-based bans, with the UN Human Rights Council making broad statements last year that denounced any move by states attempting to restrict internet and telecommunications use in their territories.
The one-month ban in Kashmir, beginning on April 17th, involved the prevention of access to 22 popular social media websites and applications, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and Skype, according to reports by the OHCHR. Additionally, the provision of 3G and 4G mobile data services in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir has also been interrupted.
According to the BBC, the social media ban was instigated as a result of both violent confrontations between local police and civilians on April 9th, in the aftermath of a local election in the city of Srinagar, in which eight people died and the subsequent anti-India student protests that unfolded in the region.
The intention of the ban by Indian authorities, as reported by the UN News Center, was to restrict communication and the spreading of information by antisocial groups that could stimulate further violence in the already unstable region. Tensions between civilians and authorities in Kashmir have been intensified for some time by the dissemination of video footage online, which shows alleged human rights abuses carried out by India security forces against civilians protesting Indian control of Kashmir, and vice versa.
According to the OHCHR’s news release, Special Rapporteur David Kaye noted that the restrictions imposed in Kashmir “fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression.” Additionally, Michel Forst condemned the move in saying that the ban “disrupts the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Restricting the ability of Kashmiri citizens to access social media sites, in an age where such sites are an integral method of communication for individuals and communities across the globe, can certainly be interpreted as a distinct violation of Article 19.
As such, the move by the two UN experts to denounce the actions of the Indian government in Kashmir is an important step to discourage such violations of fundamental human rights. Often, remaining silent on an issue can be synonymous with condoning the actions that are being undertaken. Therefore, it is significant that the two UN experts have asserted their stance in relation to Kashmir.
Last month’s social media ban is not the first of its sort in Kashmir. Indian authorities have instigated 31 social media bans and internet restrictions in the region since 2012, according to the Special Rapporteurs. Additionally, according to information released by the Brookings Institute, the Indian government’s blocking of civilian internet access was carried out more often than similar internet restrictions put in place by authorities in Pakistan, Turkey and Syria combined, with India restricting internet access over 20 times from July 2015 to July 2016 alone.
Kashmir has long been a hotbed of unrest, with control over the region being ardently disputed between Indian and Pakistan since the partition of India in 1947. Within Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir itself, long-standing tensions have been intensified by Kashmiri resistance groups, often labelled as ‘militants’, who have clashed with Indian security forces in their pursuit of either independence for Kashmir, or reunification with Pakistan.
Amidst this background of instability and hostility in Kashmir, restricting peoples’ freedom of expression could run the risk of further fueling discontent in the region, rather than subduing the population of Kashmir as it was allegedly intended by the Indian government. Imposing such restrictions is an ineffective and inappropriate way to curb tensions in the region. Alternatively, as articulated by the two UN experts, “an open, transparent and democratic dialogue” should be undertaken as a method to mitigate regional tensions and pursue peace and stability in Kashmir. This is particularly important considering India is the world’s largest democracy, yet the enactment of social media bans in Kashmir threatens to undermine a key cornerstone of any democratic polity, which is open political participation and the free expression of the citizenry.