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Afghanistan: A Decade of Missed Opportunities

10 Years After Bonn, Human Rights Situation Remains Critical

(New York) – The Afghan government and its allies abroad have failed to make human rights a top priority in the decade since the fall of the Taliban government, leaving Afghans to face an uncertain future, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bonn Agreement, signed on December 5, 2001, created a transitional government under President Hamid Karzai and laid the groundwork for elections and a new Afghan constitution.

Afghan government leaders, civil society groups, and foreign delegations will meet for a conference in Bonn on December 5, timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the agreement. As this second “Bonn Conference” gets under way, Afghans still struggle, often unsuccessfully, to exercise their basic human rights and freedoms, Human Rights Watch said.

“Human rights, and in particular women’s rights, were cited as a key benefit of the defeat of Taliban rule in 2001,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But ten years later, many basic rights are still ignored or downplayed. While there have been improvements, the rights situation is still dominated by poor governance, lack of rule of law, impunity for militias and police, laws and policies that harm women, and conflict-related abuses.”

Afghanistan’s justice system remains weak and compromised, and a large proportion of the population relies instead on traditional justice mechanisms, and sometimes Taliban courts, to resolve disputes. Human rights abuses are endemic within the traditional justice system, with many practices persisting despite being outlawed.

Women’s rights issues need special attention at the Bonn Conference, Human Rights Watch said.  Afghan women leaders and activists had to lobby strenuously simply to obtain representation at the conference and a small slot to speak. Human Rights Watch called on Afghan government officials and other conference participants to work harder to improve women’s participation in decision-making about Afghanistan’s future, including any future peace processes.

Afghan women have taken on more leadership roles in the post-Taliban era, as members of parliament, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers, soldiers, civil society officials,  and human rights activists. But many have been targeted for threats and at times violence.

Ordinary Afghan women lack even the most basic protections, Human Rights Watch said. The Taliban and other armed groups attack and threaten women, frequently focusing on women in public life, school girls, and the staff of girls’ schools. The government incarcerates women and girls for “moral crimes” such as running away from home – even when doing so is not prohibited by statutory law, with an estimated half of the approximately 700 women and girls in jail and prison facing such charges. Infant mortality and maternal mortality remain among the highest in the world, with 1 in 10 children dying before age 5 and a woman dying of pregnancy-related causes approximately every two hours.

Recent reforms, like the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, have largely failed to improve the lives of ordinary women, as the government is not enforcing its provisions, Human Rights Watch said.

The Afghan government and its allies have not heeded critical recommendations to improve Afghanistan’s security made by human rights organizations since the 2001 Bonn Conference. One year after that first Bonn conference, for instance, Human Rights Watch called on the United States and coalition partners to “stop arming regional and local military commanders” and “cease the provision of arms, ammunition, equipment, funds and other material support to regional and local military commanders.”

Instead, regional commanders have used US support to strengthen their control of local populations at the expense of human rights and the rule of law. Some US military units are  helping abusive militia commanders, while a US-supported “Afghan Local Police” program has a created a new form of armed group without sufficient oversight or accountability.

The Afghan government and its allies have repeatedly squandered opportunities to hold government or militia leaders responsible for abuses committed under their command, Human Rights Watch said. A 2005 Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice has never been implemented and no serious efforts have been made to prosecute high-level officials for corruption and other abuses. No progress has been made on seeking accountability for abuses committed before late 2001, whether during the Soviet period, the civil conflict of the early and mid-1990s, or the Taliban period.

“Afghans have made it clear that they want abusive warlords and commanders removed from their posts and prosecuted,” Adams said. “Yet the Afghan government and its backers, particularly the US, have continuously protected them. Without accountability for past and ongoing abuses, respect for human rights and the rule of law is likely to remain elusive.”

The second Bonn Conference comes at a time when countries that contribute troops and aid are seeking an exit strategy in Afghanistan. Aid commitments are falling precipitously, foreign troop levels are decreasing, and an economic downturn appears likely. Pakistan recently announced that it would not attend the Bonn Conference because of a recent border incident in which Pakistan soldiers were killed during an attack by NATO forces.

Many Afghans, and women in particular, fear that decreased international assistance and involvement will erode what limited progress has been made on human rights. A new strategic framework between Afghanistan and the United States, Kabul’s most powerful ally, was planned for signature before the second Bonn Conference, but its exact contents have not been made public.

Human Rights Watch called on all participating countries at the Bonn Conference to make a long-term commitment to support human rights, the security of the population, and development in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan’s partners need to learn from the mistakes of the past decade,” Adams said. “Critical support is still needed on accountability, justice reform, women’s rights, education and health, and support for Afghan civil society and human rights activists.”

Conflict-related violence remains a daily reality in many parts of the country. During the past decade, thousands of Afghans have suffered as a result of serious violations of international humanitarian law by insurgent forces, militias, and Afghan government and international forces.

The Taliban and other insurgent forces have committed widespread violations, in particular bombings that target civilians and other attacks that do not discriminate between military targets and civilians.  All sides have mistreated people in their custody. Large areas of the country, especially the south, are now held by insurgent forces, who frequently violate human rights. Other areas are lawless zones in which no real governance exists.

“All sides to Afghanistan’s long-running armed conflict need to respect the laws of war,” Adams said. “Ending war crimes by the Taliban and other forces is key to Afghanistan’s future.”

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