Skip to main content

As pundits and critics discuss whether the recent Hollywood film offering Zero Dark Thirty wrongly implies justification for torture, a debate about torture that is all too real plays itself out in Afghanistan. A United Nations report, issued in January, documented widespread torture in Afghanistan's detention facilities. The conclusions, while hardly a surprise to those familiar with the operations of the country's security force, raise tough questions about the human rights legacy of the last 11 years of an international presence. And it makes you wonder just what kind of Afghanistan international forces will leave behind, as they prepare to depart by the end of 2014.

The UN found that more than half of a sample of 635 pre-trial detainees and prisoners convicted on national security grounds - and interviewed over a one year period - had been tortured or ill-treated while in the Afghan government's custody. Torture was most common in detention facilities run by Afghanistan's intelligence service and police. In the period since a previous UN torture investigation in 2011, abuses in police custody have actually increased - while there was some reduction in intelligence service abuses. A quarter of torture victims were children. Almost a third of the 79 people interviewed who had been handed over to Afghan authorities by international military forces reported torture or ill-treatment in Afghan custody.

Detainees told UN investigators that torture was typically used to try to force them to confess. Some 14 different forms of torture were reported including suspension from ceilings, prolonged and severe beating especially on the soles of the feet, twisting of the male detainees' genitals, electric shock, prolonged standing or forced exercise, prolonged exposure to cold weather and threats of execution and rape. Many detainees described being subjected to varied and escalating forms of torture if they refused to confess or answer questions in a way that satisfied interrogators. The Afghan government rejected the UN's findings, calling them false and accusing the organisation of failing to cooperate with the government.

The Afghan government has demanded that the UN hand over the names of detainees claiming to have been tortured. But the UN says that it cannot provide information that would identify individual interviewees, although it has otherwise fully cooperated. President Hamid Karzai has ordered his own investigation of the UN allegations. The task force assigned by Karzai to investigate, however, consists almost entirely of government officials without human rights expertise. It includes representatives of the police and intelligence services accused of the worst abuse and has been given only two weeks to report back to the president. We at Human Rights Watch called for a government investigation by independent human rights experts, with the time and resources needed to play a long-term meaningful role in ending the use of torture in Afghanistan.

Media coverage of the UN report has linked its findings with the contentious issue of the transfer of the United States-run detention centre, at Bagram air base, to Afghan government control. In spite of a March 2012 agreement between the US and Afghan governments on a six-month timeline for the handover, the process has dragged on. This amid conflicting views of what the agreement required is and strongly worded accusations of bad faith by the Afghan government. President Karzai has made the Bagram transfer a key priority in his discussions with America, frequently suggesting that is a precondition to discussing the US request for immunity for any US troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014.

International military plans to hand over prisoners at Bagram and elsewhere are complicated by the legal obligation under the Convention Against Torture. It states that no country may hand over an individual to another country "where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture". The British government recently suspended transfer of prisoners to Afghan custody, in the context of litigation by a former prisoner who says that he was tortured after being handed over by British troops to the Afghan intelligence service.

Fatigue with the war in Afghanistan and a desire to leave the conflict behind are intense in the capitals of countries with troops remaining in Afghanistan. But as former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann recently said: "We're not winding down the damn war. We're winding down our participation in the war. That's extraordinarily different." The Karzai government - and whatever government succeeds Karzai following the 2014 Afghan presidential election - will remain deeply dependent on international financial support, not least for the costs of continuing to fight a war that has not ended.

With financial support comes influence, no matter how frequently partner governments protest that they are helpless to influence Karzai. Donor governments who provide assistance to Afghan security forces should consider imposing conditions for their support on progress on addressing torture. And the Afghan government should create an independent oversight mechanism as well as taking steps to prosecute any officials involved in torture. As Afghanistan's military partners sprint for the door, it is time for political leaders in nations funding the country's continued fight against the Taliban to insist that the war on the Taliban be accompanied by a real fight against torture.

Heather Barr is Afghanistan researcher at the campaign group Human Rights Watch

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country