The Russell Tribunal on Kashmir: The Public Diplomacy Behind Internationalising Abuses and State Terror

Held on the 17th-18th of December 2021 in Sarajevo, the Russell Tribunal evidenced the effectiveness of the Kashmiri diasporas’ public diplomacy in internationalising the human rights abuses in Indian-administered Kashmir and in calling for the political emancipation of its people. Organised by the Canada-based NGO, Kashmir Civitas, the proceedings at the tribunal were less about Kashmir as a conflict between India and Pakistan and more about Kashmiri political agency, decolonization and humanitarian concerns, such as whether the killing of Kashmiris by Indian forces can be designated as genocide and the nature of the crimes against humanity that have been perpetrated within the region.

In presenting their initial findings, the judges stated that they have “serious concerns about crimes, which appear to have been carried out on a massive scale.” They found “serious indications of constant restrictions on freedoms and gross human rights violations, including mass crimes, mass rapes and other crimes against humanity. From the allegations we have heard, these crimes seem to meet the definition of genocide.” Judge Professor Anthony Carty also suggested that one can look into the case of the Chagos Archipelago, which according to the founding of the UN had not been properly decolonized by the British in the 1960s and that a similar intervention may be possible in Kashmir. The judges have therefore requested that the UN secure the opinion of the International Court of Justice to characterise the “Kashmir situation as an uncompleted decolonization process…”

By looking at Bosnia as a case study, one can identify the past atrocities in Kashmir that correspond in nature with the events in Bosnia.

The exercise of the tribunal and the initial findings are a product of the Kashmiri diaspora’s public diplomacy. Some of the participants belong to the diasporas of Pakistan-administered Kashmir while others to the Indian-administered Kashmir. This is an important observation because, while it has often been alleged that Pakistan only raises awareness to cause trouble with India, it shows that human rights abuses in the region are of grave concern to those on both sides of the Line of Control. Kashmir Civitas, the organisation behind the tribunal, is an “international civil society and strategic advocacy organisation that “campaigns for the fundamental right of self-determination” for Jammu and Kashmir, largely from Canada. The World Kashmir Awareness Forum was also represented by two of its prominent members at the tribunal. As a Washington-based NGO, it “engages in advocacy efforts with diplomatic, civic, religious, human rights, political organizations…” Other participants were members of the Kashmiri diasporas within the UK and Belgium.

The initial challenges for hosting a tribunal are securing legitimate support and selecting a suitable location in which other organisations can helpfully participate. This particular tribunal was supported by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal. The very name of the tribunal, the Russell Tribunal on Kashmir, is as a result of the support of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. Founded in 1963, it aims to further Bertrand Russell’s work “for peace, human rights and social justice,” and members of the foundation had previously initiated a tribunal on Palestine in 2012. The Russell Tribunal was also supported by three academic institutions in Bosnia itself: Nahla, the Center for Advanced Studies in Sarajevo and the International University of Sarajevo. The supporters, therefore, represent a diverse range of organisations and experts from the US, Canada, the UK, Italy and Bosnia, not to mention all of the judges who came from all over the world.

The tribunal, which was rightly a shared platform to educate and raise awareness of the human rights abuses against both Kashmiris and Bosnian Muslims, represented a new development in the public diplomacy of the Kashmiri diasporas. While many have drawn parallels between the suffering of the Kashmiris and the Palestinians, this had not occurred between the Kashmiris and the Bosnians to the same extent. At least not publicly or on the international stage. First and foremost, the participation of Bosnian genocide survivors and experts was important for us to remember those who lost their lives or were abused in concentration and detention camps. Secondly, the case of Bosnia represents precedence recognised by the international community for what constitutes genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

One of the Bosnian speakers at the tribunal was Dr Emir Suljagic, who survived the Srebrenica genocide. He suggested that two types of murder occurred in Bosnia: firstly, the influential individuals were killed to prevent a concerted effort for resistance against the abuses. Secondly, the general population was massacred, prioritising the deaths of men and boys of combat age while destroying the moral fibre of the society through sexual violence against women. By looking at Bosnia as a case study, one can identify the past atrocities in Kashmir that correspond in nature with the events in Bosnia. Similar strategies may have been employed in Kashmir during the Kunan-Poshpora incident in 1991, for example, in which it has been alleged that men were removed from the twin villages in the name of cordon and search operations before Indian security forces mass raped women.

Therefore, the organiser’s decision to hold the tribunal in Bosnia was significant to remember the suffering of the Bosnian Muslims and show the international community that there is precedence to warrant further investigation into the events of the Kashmir conflict. On a human level, there was a visible emotional connection between the Kashmiris and Bosnians who attended the tribunal, whose shared pain was an expression of Islamic solidarity. One of the most important messages at the tribunal was that survivors of the Bosnian genocide stand with their Kashmiri brothers and sisters. If this public diplomacy between Kashmiris and Bosnians continues, there is scope for a more concerted movement in Bosnia, and perhaps in Europe generally, to force greater investigation into the claims of genocide against the Indian government and security forces.

The judges have characterised the Russell Tribunal on Kashmir as “only the beginning of a long process” in which institutions should “examine these allegations and prosecute those responsible for violations.”

Indeed, the security competition between India and Pakistan cannot be overlooked. But the implications for this competition and conflict are not limited to South Asia and are both global and humanitarian in nature. The final speaker of the tribunal was Professor Brian Toon, who gave a presentation on the consequences of a hypothetical nuclear conflict between India, Pakistan and China. With a potential of deaths up to 300 million across the three countries, he suggested that the use of nuclear weapons in this potential war would result in a global loss of agriculture which would cause mass starvation, and global temperatures would drop to the lowest levels in 1,000 years. This presentation compellingly illustrated that Kashmir, as a disputed territory, could lead to a conflict that would irreversibly change the world and lead to hundreds of millions of deaths across the globe.

In conclusion, the judges have characterised the Russell Tribunal on Kashmir as “only the beginning of a long process” in which institutions should “examine these allegations and prosecute those responsible for violations.” This may be closer to being achieved if a closer alliance between the Kashmiri diasporas and other peoples, such as the Bosnians, is secured, which might help to legitimise the claims of genocide and crimes against humanity in Kashmir through comparison with other genocides, such as that in Bosnia. This tribunal represents a step in that direction.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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