Human Rights Day 2013

Human Rights Impetus "Waning" in Afghanistan

Experts say an already dire situation could get worse after next year’s pull-out of NATO forces.
  • Still from IWPR documentary The Forgotten Victims. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Still from IWPR documentary The Forgotten Victims. (Photo: IWPR)

Mohammad Yousef, a 60-year-old from Paktia province, is in Kabul try to find out what has happened to his 14-year-old son. After he was detained by Afghan security forces, the boy has been missing for the last month.

“My son usually goes school for half the day, and helps me in my shop the other half,” he said. “But one day, the ANA [Afghan National Army] seized him from my shop before my very eyes.”


IWPR documentary on war crimes committed in Afghanistan over two decades.

According to Yousef, the soldiers beat his son badly and tore out one of his fingernails before taking him away.

Sitting weeping in the hallway of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Yousef said he believed his son had been taken to Paktia’s Zurmat district, but he had heard nothing more in his month-long search.

“My son was accused of [planning] a suicide attack, although there was no evidence,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. “No one listens to my cries. I came here [to the AIHRC] to see whether they can help. The army men beat my son so badly right before my eyes – how much worse will they have tortured him in prison?”

Experts say that in a culture of impunity and corruption, human rights abuses are on the rise in Afghanistan. They fear that the withdrawal of NATO-led forces next year will make the situation still worse.

International and local human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the Afghan government both for not doing enough to prevent ongoing violations, and for failing to prosecute historic cases. Many of those accused of carrying out atrocities during the last 35 years of conflict still hold positions of power.

In early December, prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which since 2007 has been investigating violations in Afghanistan, found that war crimes and crimes against humanity “were and continue to be committed in Afghanistan”.

The court said its next step would be to examine whether Kabul was doing enough to investigate and prosecute such crimes – a plan supported by international rights groups.

“The ICC prosecutor’s finding that war crimes and crimes against humanity are still being committed in Afghanistan should kick-start a full inquiry to spur justice in the country,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “This would signal to human rights abusers in Afghanistan that they can’t evade justice forever.”

On the ground, however, there is little hope that any such action is imminent. A February 2013 report by HRW noted that President Hamed Karzai’s administration had allowed warlords and human rights abusers to continue to wield power at the highest levels of government.

During a visit to Afghanistan in September, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she feared the human rights situation was getting worse.

“My concern – that the momentum of improvement in human rights may not only have peaked, but is in reality waning – has not been allayed,” she told a Kabul press conference. “Afghanistan needs to brace itself to ensure that the tumultuous changes that will take place before the end of 2014 do not trigger a serious deterioration in human rights.”

Afghan women face particular challenges, including high rates of violence.

On November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the AIHRC announced that more than 4,000 incidents of abuse against women had been recorded between April and September 2013, an increase of 25 per cent on the same period the previous year.

The AIRHC called the figure “shocking” and criticised government agencies for failing to prosecute those who committed abuses. The real numbers are likely to be far higher as women frequently do not report incidents of violence, particularly in rural areas.

Fatana Said Gailani, director of the Afghanistan Women Council, said that rising rates of abuse reflected the weakness of the judicial system.

“As long as legal impunity and the rule of the gun continues in this country, security and stability will not be ensured,” she said. “Also, human rights, particularly regarding women and children, will get worse and worse.”

IWPR made repeated requests for interviews to the Afghan Supreme Court and attorney general’s office to discuss these issues, without success.

A series of attacks on high-profile Afghan women has raised concerns that the limited gains for women’s rights will be reversed after NATO forces withdraw next year. (See Afghan Women Face Growing Threats.)

In Afghanistan, rights activists say some of the blame for the deteriorating situation lies with the international community, which has failed to insist that past abuses be addressed.

“We are witness to the fact that yesterday’s warlords are now in high-ranking government positions, just having changed their appearance slightly, wearing suits and ties and trimming their beards,” said Gailani. “This is also obvious to the international community, but they support it.”

Agencies within Afghanistan that were supposed to uphold human rights had merely wasted millions of dollars, she added, singling out the AIHRC for censure.

Earlier this year, Karzai’s new appointments to the human rights body angered critics who said the decision was made without consulting civil society groups and raised questions about the political affiliations of both continuing and new members. ( Afghan Human Rights Appointments Under Fire.)

“Senior officials in the AIHRC had links with war criminals or were members of parties accused of war crimes,” Gailani said. “This is one of the mistakes made by the international community.”

AIHRC spokesman Rafiullah Bidar defended the organisation, saying it had pursued many thousands of human rights cases in the last 12 years, as well as campaigning for a ban on torture and private prisons.

The AIHRC also assisted in getting legislation on the elimination of violence against women into parliament, he added.

This law, which classifies numerous acts as offences against women and sets out penalties, was passed by presidential decree in 2009, but to date has not been ratified by parliament.

According to Bidar, “The biggest obstacle and challenge for the AIHRC is the government itself, which does not support it. When cases are referred to the government, it doesn’t follow them up,” he said.

Bidar noted that the government had blocked publication of a landmark AIHRC report detailing atrocities committed in more than 30 years of conflict. The account was thought to implicate many powerful officials in various abuses and was never released.

“It is this government that tied the AIHRC hand and foot,” Bidar said.

Fayeq Wahidi, a spokesman for President Karzai, told IWPR that the very fact that the AIHRC had been set up was proof that the government supported human rights. He denied that the president had prevented the release of the AIHRC report.

Many Afghans feel that democracy and human rights apply to a lucky elite, not to everyone.

“There are human rights for those who are powerful, wealthy and control the rule of law – and whom the government fears,” said Yar Mohammad, 50, a Kabul taxi driver. “Yes, the rights of this kind of person have been established over the past 12 years. However, there are other humans like me…. If powerful people are in an accident with me, the traffic police won’t blame them, but I’ll get fined and even sent to prison for a petty violation.”

Laughing, Yar Mohammad added, “Terms like democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and women’s’ rights are a means of collecting and misusing money. They don’t benefit anyone.”

Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.