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Manipur: Controversial Special Armed Forces Act Extended

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The extension of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) prolongs decades of state-sponsored oppression in the north-east of India. While a total repeal of the Act has been rejected by the central government, the international community is paying more attention to this isolated region as a result of strong civil society campaigns.
Despite the latest extension to the “draconian” Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) on 1 June in the north-eastern state of Manipur in India, the presentation of the 2007 international Gwangju Prize to the woman human rights defender – Irom Sharmila Chanu – reflects growing international attention on the repressive human rights conditions in the state of Manipur and elsewhere in north-east India.

Although the latest extension presents a more “diluted” version of the AFSPA as it does not apply to metropolitan areas, Sharmila and other human rights activists continue to reject it in all of its forms as it fundamentally violates the Indian constitution as well as international human rights law. The government has been pressured by local civil society organisations to repeal the Act. Apunba Lup, a coalition of human rights NGOs, strongly criticised the extension of the AFSPA. “We condemn the decision, though we are not surprised. The state government is only implementing New Delhi’s policy of keeping the people of the Northeast and particularly those in Manipur under subjugation,” said Ph. Devan, a coordinator of the Apunba Lup. Furthermore, UN bodies have also taken notice as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) have strongly spoken out against the government’s extended state of emergency in the garb of tackling armed rebellion in disturbed areas of the north-east.

Known as the “Iron Lady”, Sharmila has been on hunger-strike since November 2000, though forcibly detained and fed through nasal tubes as per a court order, as she campaigns for the AFSPA to be repealed. Her campaign has so far been unable to achieve its ultimate objective, despite growing publicity. The Defence Minister A K Antony has ruled out the possibility of a total repeal of the Act following suggestions from the fifth report submitted by the Administrative Reform Committee (ARC) to the central government this week. The army and central government highlight the possibility of drafting a more “humane” version of the AFSPA, though this would continue to be contrary to the goals of human rights activists vying for the Act’s abolishment.

The AFSPA has existed in Manipur since 1980 almost without exceptions. Strong opposition to the Act stems from the view that the AFSPA primarily facilitates impunity and arbitrary arrests as Section 4 of the Act allows armed forces to arrest without a warrant and on suspicion that a crime is about to be committed. Civil society organisations also oppose the violations of right-to-life clauses entrenched in both the Constitution of India as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as section 4(a) of the Act grants armed forces the disproportional power to shoot until death for offences including an assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of “things capable of being used as weapons”. Civil society organisations urge the government of India to initiate a sincere political process to resolve the crisis in the north-east. The central government is repeatedly asked by north-eastern NGOs to respect the right to self-determination as outlined by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).

For more information about Gwangju Prize 2007 winner Irom Sharmila Chanu and her campaign in Manipur against the AFSPA’s state-sponsored oppression, please view: