September 25, 2014
Dr. Ashraf Ghani
President-elect, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
c/o Dawood Sultanzoy
c/o Suleiman Khpalwak
c/o Mustafa Omerkhil
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah
Chief Executive-elect, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
c/o Ahmad Massih
c/o Ahmad Zia
Re: Protecting and Promoting Human Rights in Afghanistan
Dear President-elect Ghani and Chief Executive-elect Abdullah:
Congratulations on your recent election. You and your new national unity government now have an opportunity—and the responsibility—to address continuing human rights concerns in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to use your offices to bring new resolve to specific reforms urgently needed to protect and promote the human rights of all Afghans.
Human Rights Watch has monitored human rights in Afghanistan since the early 1980s, documenting abuses by Soviet as well as Afghan forces at that time, and by all parties to the conflicts in the decades since. We have been grateful for the effective working relationship we have established with the Afghan government in recent years. We look forward to working with your government as you undertake crucial measures to improve the human rights situation in Afghanistan.
We are aware that 2014 is a year of major change for Afghanistan—its first democratic transfer of power and the withdrawal of most international forces by year’s end, against the backdrop of the continuing threat posed by insurgent forces. We are encouraged that both of you noted the importance of human rights for Afghanistan in your election campaigns. As Dr. Ghani observed, the protection of human rights values “is the most important obligation of our state and government.” Since Afghanistan is a party to the major human rights treaties, we encourage you to ensure that Afghanistan lives up to its international legal obligations. We are also mindful of the specific human rights commitments both of you made during the campaign and election processes, and we look forward to seeing those pledges fulfilled and to similar action on other key human rights concerns.
We write to you with recommendations in a number of key areas important to the protection of the human rights of Afghans, specifically regarding accountability for abuses by security forces, women’s rights, freedom of expression, human rights institutions, and transitional justice. We urge you and your government to make these actions a priority. We offer recommendations in each area that can have near-immediate impact on the human rights situation of large numbers of Afghans, as well as some that require longer-term commitments of political will and capital.
Lack of Accountability for the Security Forces
We are encouraged that during the election campaign, Dr. Ghani promised to ensure that members of the Afghan security forces who have been responsible for torture and other human rights violations would be prosecuted. This would be an important step forward as there is still widespread impunity for members of the security forces responsible for serious violations of human rights in Afghanistan.
In a January 2013 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) over half of the 635 detainees interviewed made credible allegations of torture. Such reports of torture, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions have continued. Despite a 2013 government investigation into allegations of ill-treatment and torture, not a single member of the Afghan security forces has been prosecuted for such abuses. The paramilitary Afghanistan Local Police program has also been plagued by failures of vetting and oversight, and impunity for human rights abuses that have included arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions. We note with concern recent calls by several high-ranking security force officials for suspected insurgents to be executed on the spot rather than being arrested.
Human Rights Watch recognizes that Afghanistan’s security forces are under great pressure in the face of a resurgent insurgency. However, it is precisely under such conditions that it is critical that the forces adhere to Afghan and international law. There are several measures that your government can undertake immediately that will have significant impact on reducing impunity. We urge you to:
- Ensure that Afghan security force personnel implicated in serious human rights violations, including those having command responsibility over abusive forces, are credibly and impartially investigated and disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate;
- Establish an independent oversight and accountability mechanism empowered to conduct investigations into all allegations of torture and other mistreatment in custody, and to refer their findings to state prosecutors;
- Create a national civilian complaints mechanism covering all Afghan security forces, including the armed forces, national police, the Afghan Local Police, and government-backed militias, that would recommend cases for investigation and assist in vetting security force personnel; and
- Disband irregular armed groups and hold them accountable for abuses they have committed, focusing first on groups that face the most serious allegations of abuse.
Prior to the election, both of your campaigns advocated reforms to protect the rights of women. Those reforms included the Afghan Women’s Six Point Petition to the Front Runners of the 2014 Presidential Election, which you both signed on June 12, 2014. That petition, organized by the Afghan Women’s Network, calls for initiatives including enforcement of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law and support for shelters, increased recruitment and retention of women in the security forces, ensuring a significant increase in the number of women in judicial and legal posts and in the civil service, and finalizing and implementing a plan on the inclusion of women in peace-building in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. It is encouraging to see Afghanistan’s new government pledging openly and in detail to specific measures to advance the rights of Afghan women. Specifically, you both pledged to ensure the punishment through the justice system of those responsible for violence against women, and committed to strengthening legal and institutional structures to address violence against women. To make this happen, we urge you to immediately:
- Issue a decree directing all police and prosecutors to fully and vigorously enforce Afghanistan’s EVAW Law. Your government should monitor their compliance with this decree, and discipline or dismiss law enforcement officials who fail to comply.
- Speak out publicly about the importance of access to shelter for women and girls fleeing violence. Your administration should conduct public awareness programs to ensure that all women and girls across the country know how to access shelter.
- In the long-term, your government should develop and implement a plan for the establishment of at least one shelter for women fleeing violence in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
You both also pledged to offer greater representation to women in the government; Dr. Ghani called for appointing a woman judge to the Supreme Court. We agree that the appointment of women to all levels of Afghanistan’s judicial and law enforcement institutions, including the Supreme Court, is urgently needed, and we look forward to seeing the actions your government will take in this regard.
There is also an urgent need to end all prosecution of women for “moral crimes,” including “running away,” zina (sex outside of marriage), and attempted zina. In a March 2012 report, Human Rights Watch estimated that some 95 percent of girls and 50 percent of women imprisoned in Afghanistan were accused of “running away” from home, zina, or attempted zina. The vast majority of these women and girls were actually crime victims, most frequently of domestic violence or forced marriage. Afghanistan’s legal system treats these women and girls as criminals when they seek to flee abuse rather than providing them assistance. In some cases, rape victims are prosecuted and convicted for zina after police, prosecutors, and judges fail to inquire about or take seriously evidence of lack of consent. In May 2013, Human Rights Watch found that the number of women and girls imprisoned for these “crimes” had increased by 50 percent over an 18-month period to approximately 600 women and girls.
We urge that you take all necessary steps to ensure that:
- All prosecutions for “moral crimes” be stopped and police and prosecutors be held responsible when they disregard or ignore reports of crimes committed against women and girls.
Afghan authorities have also subjected women and girls accused of “moral crimes” and sometimes other crimes to invasive, abusive, and scientifically meaningless “virginity examinations,” which are carried out without regard for the consent of the woman or girl being examined. These examinations, carried out by government doctors, purport to provide detailed information about a woman or girl’s sexual history; the reports from such examinations often serve as the basis for conviction in “moral crimes” cases. However, such examinations have no scientific validity in establishing “virginity” or sexual conduct; this lack of scientific validity has led courts around the world, including recently the Indian Supreme Court, to ban admission of such reports as evidence. The only legitimate use of vaginal examinations in criminal investigations is for evidence collection in rape cases that is performed when physical evidence may still be present, and when the victim freely consents.
We urge that your government take measures so that:
- Government clinics immediately stop conducting “virginity examinations” and police and judicial authorities no longer order such examinations or submit examination reports in court.
- New strict and limited guidelines be issued providing for the use of examinations solely for evidence collection in rape cases, with clear protocols for informed consent by and support to the woman or girl being examined.
Your government can also do more to ensure that crimes against women are investigated by fulfilling promises made by Dr. Abdullah, in particular, to promote female participation in the police by providing female police with safe workplaces that are protected from abuse by their male counterparts. In this regard, your government should:
- Establish effective and confidential mechanisms for female police officers to bring complaints of sexual harassment and assault, ensure witness protection for female police officers who report abuse, and impose and enforce tough sanctions including criminal prosecution against male officers who harass or assault female officers;
- Establish safe separate locking toilet and changing room facilities for women in all police stations;
- Increase the number of female police officers through targeted recruitment in line with realistic but ambitious annual benchmarks, and provide new female officers with adequate training and support; and
- Establish laws, policies, and mechanisms to prevent and punish sexual harassment in all government workplaces, including the Afghanistan National Police.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been, and will continue to be, the subject of close scrutiny by the UN Committee on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women. We urge you to:
- Accept and comply with all recommendations to the Afghan government from the Committee on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women.
Freedom of Expression
During your campaigns, you both spoke out in favor of greater protections for freedom of expression, and freedom of the press in particular. Afghanistan’s media is rightly seen as one of the great successes of the post-2001 period, and increasingly plays an important role in public debate on key political and social issues. While the media has enjoyed a relatively open environment over the past decade, many journalists have expressed concern that threats from both insurgents and powerful political actors within and outside the government are increasing. We urge you to:
- Ensure that the Afghanistan National Police and the National Directorate of Security take prompt action to investigate attacks on journalists and protect journalists who have experienced threats or attacks;
- Promptly discipline or prosecute any government official who threatens or harasses a journalist; and
- Veto any law that would impose restrictions on freedom of the media in violation of international law.
One step that the president could undertake shortly after taking office that would have immediate impact in addressing journalists’ concerns would be to:
- Sign into law the Access to Information Law, which the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, passed in 2012.
Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission
While the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has played a vital role in advocating for human rights for more than a decade, weak appointments have reduced its effectiveness and damaged its reputation among Afghans. Several of the new commissioners appointed in 2013 had little or no experience in human rights or had expressed overt hostility to the concept of universal human rights, and Commissioner Abdul Rahman Hotak spoke out in favor of repealing the EVAW Law. In June 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights took the unusual step of raising “serious concerns” about the appointments and called for the Afghan government “to reconsider the recent appointments and re-open the selection process.” Given the importance of the AIHRC as an advocate for human rights in the country, we urge you to:
- Review commissioner appointments to ensure that commissioners are actively contributing to the achievement of the AIHRC’s mandate, and dismiss those who have failed to do so.
Afghanistan is one of only seven countries whose national security forces are included on the UN Secretary-General’s “list of shame” for recruiting and using child soldiers. In 2014, the Afghan government took an important step toward ending such abuses by endorsing a UN road map that includes screening and verification procedures to check birth dates and circumstances of recruitment of soldiers and police. Your government should reaffirm its commitment to adhering to this road map, and ending the recruitment and use of children in combat forces.
In addition, Afghan schools were the targets of 249 “security incidents” in the 2009 presidential elections. In the last five years, Afghanistan has recorded more than 1,000 school-related attacks. Insurgent armed groups, government forces and government-backed militias, and international military forces have all used schools for military purposes. Your government should:
- Systematically investigate and fairly prosecute those individuals responsible for ordering, taking part in, or bearing command responsibility for attacks on schools, teachers, and students.
- Refrain from using schools and universities for military purpose and issue clear military orders to this effect.
Many serious human rights abuses have been committed in Afghanistan over the past 35 years, yet no major perpetrators have been prosecuted or convicted for any of these abuses. Dr. Ghani pledged to release the AIHRC’s Conflict Mapping Report, which was provided to President Hamid Karzai earlier this year. This would be an important step forward in beginning a process to account for past abuses. We also urge you to revive and implement the 2005 Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice, which includes further measures for truth-telling, institutional reform, and criminal accountability.
Finally, as you know, late last year the International Criminal Court (ICC) determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes—including those by Afghan forces—and crimes against humanity have been committed in Afghanistan. We therefore urge you to ensure full cooperation with the office of the prosecutor’s ongoing analysis to determine whether an ICC investigation is warranted.
Thank you for your consideration. We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss these and other human rights issues with you and members of your administration.
Executive Director, Asia division
Human Rights Watch