Afghan Human Rights Appointments Under Fire

Critics say selection process was less than transparent and some members are too close to the old paramilitary factions.

Afghan Human Rights Appointments Under Fire

Critics say selection process was less than transparent and some members are too close to the old paramilitary factions.

Tuesday, 2 July, 2013

President Hamed Karzai’s new appointments to the country’s main human rights body, have angered critics who say the decision was made without consulting civil society groups.

Some of the five new members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, AIHRC, have little relevant, and there are questions about the political affiliations of both continuing and new members.

The law defining the AIHRC’s structure and mandate says that commissioners should have practical experience in the area of human rights, and must not belong to any political party during their term of office.

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has expressed concern about the process used to pick the new commissioners.

“Donors need to watch the work of the newly-constituted commission every step of the way,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director, said in a statement, adding that Karzai had “selected people without regard for expertise or a proven record of fighting for human rights”.

Satar Saadat, a political analyst and a leading member of the Afghan Bar Association, has long been a critic of the AIHRC, and was part of a civil society delegation that met President Karzai twice to submit suggestions for suitable commissioners.

He says Karzai entirely disregarded their recommendations and instead appointed members for political reasons.

Saadat alleged that Sima Samar, reappointed as the AIHRC’s head, was a leading figure in Hezb-e Wahdat, an ethnic Hazara faction that has been accused of war crimes. He also accused Samar of producing a “shameful and unfair” report on disputes between nomadic Pashtun and settled Hazara on the use of pasture land in the central Afghan highlands.

“When someone has such a narrow vision and is restricted in term of ethnicity, language and regionalism, how can she chair such an important body as the human rights commission?” he asked.

According to Saadat, others in the nine-member body also had connections to armed factions involved in past abuses, but he declined to name them.

“So what will the future of transitional justice be, given the presence of representatives of these factions?” he asked. “Who will try the war criminals and violators of human rights with ties to these parties?”

Samar, a veteran rights activist and former woman’s affairs minister, denied that she had any ethnic bias or factional affiliation. She added that although she had been invited to join Hezb-e Wahdat in the past, she had not accepted.

“It isn’t important to me what gets published and where. It’s what I do that is important,” she added.

On the land rights report, Samar insisted she had not taken sides.

As for political affiliations of other commissioners, she said, “I don’t know who belongs – or doesn’t belong – to which party. I didn’t appoint them; it was the president’s decision.”

The new appointments come after a period in which the commission’s ranks had been severely depleted. In January 2011, one member was killed in a suicide bombing, and in December that year, Karzai announced the removal of three AIHRC commissioners. A fifth was dismissed in 2012.

The AIHRC has come into conflict with the Karzai government in the past.

In December 2011, the commission was due to present a major report on three decades of human rights abuses in Afghanistan, which was said to include the names of former warlords who are currently high-ranking government officials. The report was never published, and at the time Samar said, “When I asked the president to guarantee the safety of commission members once the report was published, Hamed Karzai gave me a negative response.”

The appointments have troubled other critics of the body. Shahla Farid, a lecturer in law at Kabul university, said that the AIHRC had become politicised, and emphasised that “people who are members of or involved with political parties cannot be members of the human rights commission”.

One new commissioner, Maulavi Abdurrahman Hotak, is a former member of the Taleban who, according to some reports, worked in the transport ministry during their rule.

He says he has long since left the movement and does not currently belong to any political party.

“I did not agree with some of the Taleban’s actions at the time, and I had some disagreements with them,” he said, adding that although he had not worked in the area of human rights before, he was familiar with Islamic jurisprudence as well as law and political science.

Another new commissioner, Qadira Yazdanparast, a law lecturer and former member of parliament, said her past connections to Jamiat-e Islami, a powerful faction in the north of Afghanistan, did not clash with her new appointment.

“In line with the human rights commission’s statute, I will have no contacts with factions as long as I work on this commission,” she said.

Yazdanparast said that although she did not have direct experience of human rights work, she had chaired the human rights committee in the last parliament.

“I always criticised the performance of the AIHRC then, and it was one of my ambitions to be appointed and work in this commission,” she added.

Another new member Hawa Alam Nurestani is a former news presenter and parliamentarian who most recently was a member of the High Peace Council.

“It is true that I am in Karzai’s team, but I’m not a member of any party,” she told IWPR.

Human Rights Watch said the 1993 Paris Principles, which set out standards for national human rights institutions, state that appointments should ensure a broad representation of civil society involved in this field, and the process should be transparent.

In the Afghan case, Adams said, “The appointments were unexpectedly announced after a process that involved no discussion with or input from civil society organisations involved in human rights. While President Karzai had some limited discussions earlier in the process with members of civil society, he never engaged broadly with the large and diverse Afghan human rights community, and there is no evidence that the concerns raised by numerous human rights groups were reflected in Karzai’s appointments.”

The United Nations’ human rights office also expressed concern about the appointments, stressing that selection processes must follow agreed international standards.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay asked her office to review the appointment process to assess whether it complied with the Paris Principles and with the AIHRC’s own statute.

“These require, among other elements, that the process is transparent, that it includes broad consultation throughout, and that members are selected to serve in their own individual capacity rather than on behalf of any organisation,” the UN commissioner’s spokesman Rupert Colville said, adding that the commission’s compliance with these principles would be evaluated by the international accreditation body for national human rights institutions this November.

Civil society activist Ajmal Baluchzada agreed that Karzai had not conducted a proper consultation process or adhered to the Paris Principles, adding, “The president should have at least considered the demands of civil society.”

But he conceded that there was a capable team working at the AIHRC, and warned that placing political restrictions on commission members could also be unconstitutional.

“In accordance with the constitution and civil laws, every individual has the right to be a member of a political party as well as to participate in demonstrations. This has nothing to do with the human rights commission,” he said.

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.

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