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(New York) - Afghanistan's constitution contains new human rights provisions and mandates better political representation of women, Human Rights Watch said today. But domination of the approval process by warlords and factional leaders raises serious concerns about whether the country can hold free and fair elections this year.

"Human rights protections were put on paper," said John Sifton, Human Rights Watch's researcher on Afghanistan. "But there were a lot of missed opportunities, and complaints about threats and corruption during the convention."

Human Rights Watch noted that there were significant achievements at the meeting. The single biggest gain is that women are now guaranteed a substantial number of seats in Afghanistan's bicameral National Assembly. Approximately 25 percent of seats in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) are reserved for women; the president is obligated to appoint additional women in the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders). One provision of the constitution also provides specific equality between men and women under law.

The language on human rights in the charter was mixed. The document contains several provisions enunciating basic political, civil, economic and social rights, but little strong language empowering institutions to uphold them. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), created by the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, is given a mandate, but lacks many of the powers necessary for it to credibly protect basic rights.

The constitution fails to adequately address the role of Islamic law and its relationship to human rights protections. Human Rights Watch is concerned that conservative factions could use appointments to the new judiciary to implement interpretations of Islam that may violate human rights standards.

The issue of accountability is also not addressed in the document. Despite Afghanistan's recent history of mass atrocities, the charter does not directly address issues of past war crimes and serious human rights abuses. The AIHRC may be able to delve further into this area-but lacks any specific constitutional mandate to do so.

Human Rights Watch was concerned about the political intimidation and vote-buying that took place before and during the convention. The abuses proved that warlords and local factions continue to dominate Afghanistan's political processes.

"A constitution cannot itself reduce the power of the warlords," said Sifton, "But an open political process in drafting it could have weakened their influence. Instead, the warlords flexed their muscles and proved that they still hold a lot of power."

The new constitution was approved January 4 by 502 delegates at a special constitutional loya jirga, or "grand council," mandated under the Bonn Agreement. The meeting began December 14. During elections for delegates to the convention, Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of death threats and corruption, and a general atmosphere of intimidation at election sites. U.N. officials told Human Rights Watch that many of the elected delegates to the convention were proxies or allies of local factional leaders.

Once the loya jirga began, independent delegates complained that warlords and factional leaders, and ministers of President Hamid Karzai's government, were strong-arming and even bribing delegates.

Some delegates complained of outright intimidation. Malalai Joya, a woman delegate who complained about warlord dominance, was almost thrown out of the convention and required special security for the remainder of the meeting.

Human Rights Watch said that much of the substantive discussion at the loya jirga took place between allies of President Karzai and various factional representatives, behind closed doors. Many crucial provisions were not meaningfully discussed.

Human Rights Watch also confirmed that U.S. officials met with certain factional leaders, including General Rashid Dostum and Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, to negotiate support for the Karzai government's draft of the constitution.

"The atmosphere of fear and corruption at the convention, and efforts by U.S. officials and the Karzai government to secure bloc votes from factional leaders, affected how robustly some provisions were debated," said Sifton. "The entire process casts doubt on the elections that are to be held here later this year."

Human Rights Watch called on the international community to provide better security for the country, which would signify its commitment to the new constitution, and urged the United Nations to bolster its human rights protection and monitoring staff.

In particular, more efforts will be needed in coming months to prepare for elections, planned either for June or September.

"The United States and its allies in Afghanistan, especially NATO, need to keep expanding international security forces outside of Kabul, and have them focus on improving security," said Sifton.

Human Rights Watch also called on Afghan political and military factions to cease intimidating or corrupt practices aimed at limiting legitimate political representation.

"The warlords need to recognize that the rule of the gun must end," said Sifton.

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