As you meet in Paris to assess the Afghan government’s progress towards benchmarks set by the 2006 Afghanistan Compact and launch the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), Human Rights Watch urges you to place human rights at the center of discussions with the government of Afghanistan and your development strategies.
In the past six years, cooperation between the Afghan government and international donors has spurred positive developments, such as significant increases in primary school enrollment rates and the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections. However, in the midst of a ongoing civil war, Afghanistan remains mired in insecurity, poverty, widespread human rights abuses, and impunity. Much more investment and work remains before the international community fulfills the multiple commitments it has made to assist Afghanistan to achieve sustainable development, local and regional security, and respect for human rights.
Most Afghans continue to live in an insecure environment where many of their basic rights remain unfulfilled. Because of a lack of security, in many parts of the country just going to the market, walking to school, or driving to work remains a very dangerous activity. Much of this is because of violence and threats from anti-government forces, particularly the Taliban, but responsibility also lies with warlords, drug lords, and others allied to the Afghan government. Human Rights Watch has long called for more international security forces to create a more secure environment for Afghans to enjoy their basic rights. While there has been a substantial increase in the past year, these forces have been slow in arriving and there are still significant gaps in their presence around the country.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Paris meeting to ensure that the concept of “security” takes into account how violence or the fear of violence impacts the lives of Afghans. Benchmarks should include, for instance, whether clinics and schools can operate, whether people can travel safely, and whether humanitarian agencies can carry out development and reconstruction projects. It is also important to ensure that all international security forces operating in Afghanistan facilitate security for reconstruction and development.
In preparation for the Paris meeting, Afghan and international groups and individuals developed a series of recommendations, which they have submitted to you. We urge you to take these very seriously as you develop your plans and policies. It is critical that Afghan civil society is treated as an integral and indispensable partner in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. We urge the government and donor countries to ensure the full and genuine participation of Afghan civil society, including the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, in high-level policy meetings and deliberations.
Human Rights Watch urges the Afghan government and donors to consider the following actions when prioritizing funding and initiatives for Afghanistan:
1. Women’s Rights
Despite gains in girls’ primary school enrollment rates and women’s political participation, Afghan women and girls confront discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives. They continue to struggle to exercise fundamental rights to health, education, work, freedom from violence, and freedom of movement. Afghan women and girls continue to rank among the world’s worst-off by most indicators, such as life expectancy (43 years), maternal mortality (1,600 deaths per 100,000 births), and literacy (12.6 percent of females 15 and older).
Afghanistan is likely to fall significantly short of achieving benchmarks set out in the UN Millennium Development Goals, which among other things aims to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education and to reduce the number of maternal deaths by 75 percent.
Donor countries should ensure that their support for the Afghan government is conditioned on improved integration of women in government and decision-making. Budgets should be designed to promote gender equality at all levels, with specific and sufficient funds earmarked for initiatives aimed at improving women and girls’ status. Donors should incorporate a gender perspective into evaluations of all funded projects.
Girls’ and women’s education is absolutely essential to Afghanistan’s future and is both a critical and symbolic measure of Afghanistan’s progress. With 1.7 million girls currently in primary school, this is the highest number in Afghan history and a major milestone for the country. However, girls’ enrollment in lower and higher secondary schools drops off considerably, with less than 270,000 girls enrolled. Instead of improving, girls’ secondary schooling rates are beginning to regress from the initial spike in 2001.
Low literacy rates make education for girls an urgent priority in itself, but also have grave consequences on every other aspect of development in Afghanistan. Progress in areas such as health, political participation, and employment hinge on educating a new generation of female teachers, health care providers, and other workers.
Afghan women and girls continue to face formidable obstacles to education, such as the lack and distance of schools, government policies that give preferential support to boys’ schooling, lack of qualified teachers, sexual harassment while en route to school, and early marriage. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, insecurity, including targeted attacks against schools, teachers, and students have severely hampered both girls’ and boys’ ability to attend school.
Human Rights Watch urges donors and the government of Afghanistan to:
- Make access to education a benchmark for measuring compliance with the Compact, which sets out security as one of the three pillars of activity for the next five years.
- Closely monitor and increase enrollment and retention rates of girls and women at all levels of educations, especially at secondary and higher education levels.
- Devise and implement a strategy to monitor, prevent, and respond to attacks on schools, teachers, and students.
- Build more girls’ secondary schools and in the meantime expand existing primary schools to include secondary classes.
- Avoid creating a parallel system of home-based education and integrate girls into the formal education system.
- Consult local women and girls on locations of new schools to ensure that they are accessible. Work with communities to develop secure routes, methods of transportation, and community protection plans for school girls, especially older girls who may be at higher risk of harassment.
- Review school curricula for discriminatory content and develop curricula that teaches about human rights, including women’s and children’s rights.
In a country where a high proportion of the population suffers from malnutrition and preventable disease, women and girls are particularly at risk due to their low social status and their limited access to health facilities. An area requiring particular attention is reproductive health. The ability to control matters related to reproduction and sexuality is fundamental to the exercise of Afghan women’s human rights.
Human Rights Watch urges donors to support the Afghan government to:
- Improve the quality and increase women’s access to the government’s Basic Package of Health Service (BPHS).
- Increase investment in training of practitioners specialized in women’s health care. Work toward ensuring that skilled attendance is available at all births by an accredited and competent health care provider who has at her or his disposal the necessary equipment and the support of a functioning health system.
- Support the establishment of a referral system between different levels of health care, in particular to handle life-threatening complications in pregnancy and childbirth.
- Increase resources for and effective implementation of the National Reproductive Health Strategy, placing particular emphasis on reduction of fertility rates and health education.
Gender Based Violence
Violence against women and the absence of effective redress for victims, whether through informal or formal justice mechanisms, is a pervasive human rights problem in Afghanistan. The practice of exchanging girls and young women to settle feuds or to repay debts continues, as do high rates of early and forced marriage. According to a study by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and women’s organizations, approximately 57 percent of girls get married before the age of 16. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), women’s activists, and nongovernmental organizations point to domestic violence being a widespread problem for which there is still little public awareness, prevention effort, or response. Local commanders and their forces have also been implicated in cases of sexual violence against women and girls.
The security and judicial sectors lack an institutional culture that is sensitive to women. Women and girls face many barriers to assistance, including police and local-level officials who dismiss or ignore their complaints, discriminatory divorce laws, and a lack of services, such as shelters, counseling, and legal aid.
Human Rights Watch urges donors to support the government of Afghanistan to act with due diligence to prevent violence against women; to monitor and investigate such violence; to prosecute and punish perpetrators, whether they are state or non-state actors; and to provide access to redress for victims, including by:
- Developing Family Response Units, comprising of male and female officers trained to handle gender-based violence, in each district police office.
- Enacting gender-specific legislation, including a family law and an anti- violence against women law. Provide training for judges and prosecutors in these laws.
- Funding comprehensive and coordinated support services for victims of violence, including shelter, legal aid, counseling, and access to health care.
- Developing national campaigns to raise awareness about women’s rights, gender-based violence, and harmful practices including early and forced marriage and honor-related crimes.
- Assessing budgets at national and local levels from a gender perspective to ensure a more equitable allocation of resources to eliminating discrimination and violence against women.
2. Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression for those who criticize government officials, the insurgents, or powerful local figures remains limited. Threats, violence, and intimidation are regularly used to silence opposition politicians, critical journalists, and civil society activists speaking out on issues of public concern. The culture of fear has been heightened by high-profile cases like that of Sayed Parviz Kambakhsh, a student sentenced to death on blasphemy charges for downloading an article he denies writing.
The Afghan media, which was once seen as a rare success of the post-Taliban government, has increasingly come under attack from warlords, insurgents, parliamentarians, and members of the government. This often leads to self-censorship, not just by journalists but by members of civil society and the public. Many journalists have been detained, some have been held without charge for days, weeks, or months. Violent attacks on independent media and journalists have increased since 2005. Just last week, on June 8, the bullet-ridden body of 25-year-old journalist Abdul Samad Rohani, a BBC correspondent, was found a day after he went missing in Helmand province. His death highlights the extreme dangers that journalists face in the south and east of the country where the armed conflict – and the resulting propaganda war – is most fierce. Insurgent groups have used murder, arson, and intimidation to try to stop reporting they see as unsympathetic. In some districts no independent media exists. Information black holes will continue to grow unless action is taken to reverse this trend.
Violence against journalists is by no means confined to the conflict areas; death threats are a common response to critical reporting anywhere in the country. Many journalists admit that some subjects have become taboo, in particular the drugs trade and high-level government corruption. Freedom of expression is also being threatened by the offer of bribes for sympathetic reporting from warlords and government officials.
When media workers have been murdered or attacked, the response of the security forces has been very limited, leaving journalists feeling more vulnerable. It has been over a year since the outspoken journalist and human rights defender Zakia Zaki was killed. No one has been charged with her murder.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the increasingly authoritarian response of the government towards the media. The government has attempted to bring criminal charges against journalists for having contact with insurgent groups. Numerous acts of governmental repression have been documented by Afghan media watchdogs. The recent attempt by the Ministry of Information and Culture to ban five entertainment programs on the grounds that they are “un-Islamic” has been perceived by most in the media industry as a politically motivated attempt to increase government control.
Lack of access to government information continues to severely hamper the already limited investigative journalism work in Afghanistan. Foreign military forces in Afghanistan have also been responsible for routinely obstructing journalists’ right to information.
Human Rights Watch has called upon the Afghan parliament and the executive to revise the draft media law to strengthen and protect an independent media in Afghanistan, rather than roll back freedoms. The Media Complaints Commission should be used by government officials at all levels to resolve problems with journalists and media outlets before resorting to the courts or, as in the case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, criminalizing speech and handing down the death penalty. Kambakhsh’s case demonstrates how fragile freedom of expression is in many parts of Afghanistan, and the lack of progress that has been made in establishing a professional and independent judiciary. It is an embarrassment to the Karzai government, which has failed to take judicial reform seriously, thereby failing to ensure respect for many basic freedoms.
3. Impunity, Transitional Justice, and Needed Judicial Reform
Impunity for serious human rights violations remains the norm, as the government does not prosecute perpetrators of abuses who have protection from government officials, parliamentarians, or warlords. This has a profound impact on public attitudes about the government.
While the government is formally committed to addressing crimes of the past, little action has been taken to implement the Transitional Justice Action Plan. A major step backwards was taken with the passage of the 2007 Amnesty Law which, though still in legal limbo, could make impunity the law of the land.
Afghans want justice for the crimes of the past. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) completed an extensive survey in 2004, based on in-depth interviews and focus groups, addressing issues of justice and accountability for past abuses. The survey makes it clear that the vast majority of Afghans want the past to be confronted, do not see such efforts as destabilizing, and want justice sooner rather than later.
According to the AIHRC survey results, 94 percent of Afghans consider justice for past crimes to be either “very important” (75.9 percent) or “important” (18.5 percent). When asked what the effects would be for Afghanistan in bringing war criminals to justice, 76 percent said it would “increase stability and bring security,” and only 7.6 percent said it would “decrease stability and threaten security.” Almost half of those questioned said war criminals should be brought to justice “now,” and another 25 percent said perpetrators should be tried “within two years.”
Human Rights Watch, along with numerous other international and Afghan non-governmental organizations, has repeatedly called on Afghan officials and international actors involved in Afghanistan to help create mechanisms to hold persons responsible for major human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during Afghanistan’s wars. We fully agree with the AIHRC on the need for this issue to receive more attention. We support their view that the president and government of Afghanistan should better prioritize justice for victims of past abuses and fully endorse efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.
Human Rights Watch, therefore, urges the government to accelerate efforts to create justice-seeking mechanisms to sideline past abusers from political power and official positions and hold them accountable for their crimes. We urge the government to embrace justice and accountability as vital for the rule of law and the protection of human rights now and in the future.
We also urge the government, with the active support of donors, to accelerate reforms to the judicial system of Afghanistan, which are essential to successful justice-seeking efforts. The appointment of properly trained and independently minded judges and prosecutors, who owe no allegiance to factional leaders or regional strongmen, is crucial. The president should take a leadership role in creating the conditions necessary for genuine judicial independence, chiefly by ensuring that government officials do not interfere in individual cases before the courts. The government and its donors must also prioritize efforts to create a well-educated legal profession.
Some will argue that pursuing justice for past crimes will create political instability, as many human rights abusers and potential defendants remain in power at both the national and regional levels.
We believe this threat is consistently overstated. There is always a risk in seeking justice against powerful individuals for the human rights abuses they commit. With the support of the international community and civil society, justice-seeking processes have been undertaken in similarly fragile post-conflict settings. And as noted above, the AIHRC survey has indicated that three in four Afghans believe that achieving justice for past crimes would increase stability, not decrease it.
Renewed respect for human rights and the rule of law can help to create sustainable stability in Afghanistan. A serious and successful accountability process is a key means towards this goal.
By contrast, one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan’s political stability and future comes from individuals who have committed serious human rights abuses in the past. These are the people who are today most likely to resort to force and other extra-legal measures to circumvent and subvert Afghanistan’s political process and legal system. To achieve long-term stability, the government will ultimately have to address the continuing threat from these individuals.
We have long recommended that the government implement a set of vetting processes for government officials. The president, provincial governors, and other public officials should not appoint to public office individuals who have had credible allegations made against them about the commission of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity. Appointed officials already in office who have had credible allegations made against them should be suspended or dismissed, depending on the credibility of the allegations and the gravity of the crime. Civil servants and civil service applicants should be screened to reject applicants who have had credible allegations made against them about the commission of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity.
In future election periods, Afghanistan’s Electoral Commission should be empowered to hold public hearings at which allegations can be brought against candidates about their past serious human rights abuses, violations of international humanitarian law, and crimes against humanity, as well as violations of the electoral law and candidates legal qualifications (Under 2005 election arrangements, the Electoral Commission worked in cooperation with a UN component to hear complaints about candidates, but only about allegations of violations of the electoral law and candidates’ legal qualifications). The AIHRC should be empowered to present evidence and bring complaints before the Electoral Commission on behalf of victims and survivors of past abuses. Persons alleged to have committed abuses should be given an opportunity to rebut charges and submit evidence. Parliament should formulate legislation defining the work of the Electoral Commission and the terms of its mandate.
To address crimes committed under international and domestic law during the armed conflicts in Afghanistan since 1978, the government should establish a Special Court, empowered to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights crimes. Because the Afghan criminal justice system is currently incapable of investigating and prosecuting complex international crimes, and because of practical difficulties in guaranteeing that such a court would be impartial if domestically administered, the Special Court should be a mixed court comprised of both Afghan and international judges and prosecutors. To guard against political manipulation by powerful individuals who may be targets of criminal investigations, the court should have a majority of international judges and a prosecutor’s office led by an international prosecutor. The government should work with the parliament to address legal and constitutional issues arising from its creation. If necessary, the government should seek to amend the Afghan Constitution to address these issues.
The Special Court should be empowered to prosecute individuals on the basis of Afghan law in effect at the time of the offence as well as applicable international law, including international humanitarian law, international law regarding crimes against humanity, and other relevant international criminal law. The Special Court must be independent and impartial and meet international fair trial standards. It should include an effective protection program for victims and witnesses and their families. Due to domestic sensitivities and the deep social stigma associated with sexual violence in Afghanistan, the Special Court should create secure mechanisms for women and girls so that they can safely present evidence on sexual abuses.
The creation of a Special Court should be coordinated with broader efforts to improve and expand the criminal justice system in Afghanistan and to ensure compliance with international due process standards.
The government should grant no amnesties or other immunities to persons implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations of international human rights law. There must be no exceptions for government officials.
To address any future crimes of this magnitude and to bring Afghanistan into conformity with its treaty obligations, the government should implement the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, ratified by Afghanistan in 2003. The president should propose legislation to parliament that would criminalize, under Afghan law, war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and other serious violations of human rights.
The president should work with parliament to enact additional legislation as required by the Rome Statute. The president should appoint a standing panel of high-level and independent Afghan and international experts to propose and help implement additional programs and policies to address issues that are not dealt with by the Special Court. This should include an archive for the historical documentation of past abuses, recommendations on appropriate restitution or compensation mechanisms, and undertaking educational initiatives, such as the drafting of fair historical accounts in school textbooks.
International actors and donors should offer political, technical, and financial support to efforts to establish accountability mechanisms in Afghanistan, as discussed above. International actors should take into account public opinion in Afghanistan in formulating policies about past crimes and accountability mechanisms. Other countries should fully cooperate with investigations into past abuses, including by allowing access to documents and other materials held outside Afghanistan.
4. Death Penalty
Human Rights Watch is concerned about recent executions and the threat of execution of approximately 100 prisoners on death row in Afghanistan. The current judiciary system does not have the capacity to provide for fair trials or meet other death penalty standards as required under international law. Human Rights Watch urges President Karzai not to sign execution orders for prisoners sentenced to death and instead use his presidential powers to commute all outstanding death sentences in Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and irrevocable form of punishment. Until such time as the death penalty is abolished in Afghanistan, we call on donor countries to support the introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty, drawing on the positive experience of other countries in transition that have done so. President Karzai should immediately announce a moratorium in Afghanistan.
5. Status of US forces in Afghanistan, Access to Detainees
Afghan civil society organizations have repeatedly called for a clarification of the status of the international military presence in Afghanistan through a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). While the deployment of the NATO-led international Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is mandated by the UN, the US-led “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF) operates in a legal vacuum. This has created significant problems regarding the detention of individuals in extra-legal facilities, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, lack of accountability for deaths and injuries to civilians, and inadequate compensation schemes for persons harmed by US forces. It is critical for the United States to bring its counter-terror operations into conformity with international law by making public all places of detention, releasing the names of detainees, and granting access to lawyers and human rights monitors, including the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. As required by international humanitarian law during armed conflicts not between states, persons apprehended should, at a minimum, be informed of the specific reasons for their arrest and be brought before an independent judicial body.
We thank you for your consideration of the above issues. We believe that if the government of Afghanistan and donors want to succeed in efforts to build state institutions accountable to the people of Afghanistan, intensified efforts have to be undertaken to increase the accountability and transparency of the government and donors to the people of Afghanistan. To this end the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Body (JCMB), which comprises the Afghan government and international donors, should integrate stronger benchmarks for accountability and transparency into the Afghanistan National Development Strategy and into the review process of the JCMB. In the past, human rights issues, such as the reform of the weak judicial system and the dysfunctional police force, have too often been postponed or entirely dropped from the agenda of the JCMB.
Executive director Asia division